Curiosity: all too easy to stifle

Curiosity, genuine intellectual curiosity, is not a habit of mind than can easily be taught in the classroom. However, a long career in the classroom has crystallized into this one inescapable conclusion: curiosity is a behavior – a life skill even –  that children must bring to the classroom to ensure their academic success. 

Teachers coax some academic performance from students with any number of motivational gimmicks. Teachers modify behavior with positive and negative feedback. Teachers lead students to the proverbial fountain of knowledge, but students will not drink sufficiently long and deep in the absence of a thirst for understanding. Teachers may sometimes inspire a cautious ascent up the psychologist’s hierarchy of needs, but should a student lack intrinsic curiosity, then the climb to that ultimate goal of self actualization will be torturous.

It must be noted that teachers can also squelch nascent curiosity. If teachers mistake meanness for rigor or bitterness for pragmatism, the effects can be devastating and long lasting. 

Absolutely everyone shares in the responsibility for the cultivation of curious minds. 

How important is curiosity? The ‘question’ is the foundation for all rational thought. It has been said that Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity – which thoroughly revolutionized the way humanity looks at the Cosmos – began with a seminal event in his fifth year and bore fruit nearly two decades laters. 

On Einstein’s fifth birthday, his father bought the young genius a compass. Albert asked what compelled the needle to point northward. His father explained that invisible lines of magnetic force emanated from the Earth and pulled the suspended magnet in the direction of the North Pole. 

Albert Einstein spent his entire life answering an endless series of follow-up questions, completely obsessed with understanding the workings of electromagnetism and gravity. Or, so the story goes…

Countless times in nearly three decades, I stood in front of a classroom full of students shouting like some modern Richard III, “A question! A question! My kingdom for a question!”

Three-quarters of a class might perform abysmally on a relatively simple assessment, but when surveyed the respondents would willingly indicate that they had not opened the book, or practiced the skill, a few would indicate inability to decode the cues despite near-daily repetition of a base vocabulary for multiple semesters. No small portion of students would exhibit handwriting that was marginally legible. A couple students would crumple the paper upon receipt. The principle symptom of “senioritis” manifested as acute affected disinterest.

These aspects of daily life in the classroom, in and of themselves, are not particularly bothersome.

What is troubling is the collective response to the teacher’s prompt: “Are there any questions about the quiz?”

Most frequently, none would be posed. Seldom would a hand be raised. 

It mattered little that this skill would likely appear again in the unit exam. It mattered even less that this was a foundational skill, scaffolding for future knowledge. No, what mattered more was that raising your hand and asking pertinent and cogent questions might lead to labeling as a “nerd” by classmates. 

“How can you not have any questions?” I would ask. A few indifferent shrugs constituted the reply. You know you are in trouble when the bell rings and it fails to awaken a student who has learned to sleep with his eyes open. 

How has it come to this? What has become of the human passion for understanding? Where is the will to learn? How do our young people arrive in the modern classroom so totally unprepared to participate in the process of improving their minds in preparation for the Age of Information. 

Some years ago, this confirmed people-watcher occupied a bench in a local mall waiting for his wife to exit a store. Not far away, a mother and her son were having lunch in the food court. No scene could have appeared more benign. 

The little boy was engaged in that “Why is the sky blue?” questioning behavior typical of toddlers. His little voice was barely audible, but the nature of the conversation could be surmised by the mother’s increasingly agitated replies. 

“I don’t know.” “Stop asking so many questions and eat your lunch.” Because they do, that’s why.” “I don’t know that, either.” “You’ll have to ask your daddy.” “You ask too many questions.” “You are starting to get on my nerves with all these questions.” “Eat your lunch or we won’t be able to go to the movie.” “That’s it, we are going home.”

Everyone has felt similarly exasperated with an ambitiously inquisitive child. Curiosity may not have killed the cat, but it had consigned one young man to perdition – judging by the wailing as his mother led him away – for a behavior that most teachers would heartily welcome in the classroom. If such conditioning were to be commonplace, it is not too difficult to imagine some future teacher calling little Jonathan’s parents to express concern about his lack of participation in class. 

Teachers may sometimes succeed at reawakening stifled curiosity during instruction, but their jobs would be infinitely easier if everyone would simply nurture the natural inquisitiveness of children instead of stifling it. To paraphrase George Sand, curiosity is a delicate flower that never blooms once trampled underfoot. 

The “Viewpoint” originally appeared in the Prince George’s Journal on April 20, 2001. It has been revised. 

How Do We Get There From Here?

An old Winston Churchill quote has been getting a lot of play of late, but it bears repeating. “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” The quip is applicable for so many of our national endeavors, except for public education where we try the same thing over and over while expecting a different result. 

It has become abundantly clear that funding education with the proceeds of a property tax favors schools located in affluent jurisdictions and disfavors those schools serving jurisdictions predominantly inhabited by the economically disadvantaged. However, we continue to rely on the same funding mechanisms that have failed to deliver equity for all children.

Why do we burden property owners with the responsibility of providing public education for all children? Is it not time to find a path to spread that responsibility more evenly across the tax base?

Educators, those closest to the work of preparing children for this new century, advocate strenuously for sufficient human and material resources to reach every child in every classroom. Achieving equity for the children most in need will be expensive, but poverty is the rogue elephant in our classrooms and pea shooters will not stop its charge.

Instead of compensating for that poverty with resources,  so-called education reformers allocated millions to fund new standardized assessments that do nothing but validate what all classroom teachers know in their heart: aggregate test scores are a reliable indicator of socio-economic status and little else.

Still, the nation doubled down on the ’test & punish’ strategy of No Child Left Behind by enacting an even more onerous Race to The Top, and this despite mounting evidence that both students and educators were losing too much time for teaching-and-learning to the administration of tests.

The media report regularly on the rampant turnover in the teaching profession. The exodus and/or migration of educators remains the logical outcome following years of vilification of teachers in the public debate and the fetid mix of inadequate compensation, unreasonable workload and little professional autonomy.

From where will the next generation of lifelong, committed educators arise given the current working conditions? Why would any of them stay anywhere but an affluent neighborhood with guaranteed optimal test scores?

Little has changed in the five centuries that have elapsed since Montaigne observed “…the greatest and most important difficulty in human knowledge seems to lie in the branch of knowledge which deals with the upbringing and education children.” It does seem like time at least to start exhausting the possibilities so that we can finally arrive at doing the right thing for all children. 

[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on July 29, 2015] 

Federal deregulation is a path to disaster (II)

“Decades of corporate government deregulation and reduced funding of important government departments has the country well along the path to a lawless society.”
Steven Magee

James Carville is reputed to have said, “Businessmen want fewer regulations for the same reason criminals want fewer police; it’s easier to get away with murder!” One must hope that Mr. Carville was speaking metaphorically, but any number of our industrial products and by-products now jeopardize our health and, very possibly, our continued tenure as the dominant species on Earth. 

Decades of reliance on insecticides have increased food production, but at what cost? In the seventies we were talking about the thinning of eggshells for birds in the wild. Today, we are losing bees, our principal pollinators, at an alarming rate. In January 2017, bumblebees have been placed on the endangered species list. The risks to the food supply cannot be overstated if we lose the bees, or even if climate change alters the delicate timing of blooms and the awakening of the insects that feed on their pollen.

Nor can we be certain of the health consequences on human beings of chronic exposure to these powerful toxins that kill insects by disrupting their nervous systems.  Joni Mitchell said it best decades ago, “Give me spots on my apples; but, leave me the birds and the bees, now!” We really will not understand what we have until its gone. But, cheer up, chemical companies will have made a fortune in the process! 

The opening line of a study from the National Institute of Health [NIH] study Epidemiologic Evidence on the Health Effects of Perflourooctanic Acid should do little to calm your jitters.  “Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) does not occur naturally but is present in the serum of most residents of industrialized countries.” Our exposure rates are very low and PFOA does not qualify as an acute toxin. However, our exposure qualifies as chronic since so many cook with Teflon-coated pans. The study continues, “It does not break down in nature and has a half-life of three years in the human body PFOA is not directly genotoxic; animal data indicate that it can cause several types of tumors and neonatal death and may have toxic effects on the immune, liver, and endocrine systems. Data on the human health effects of PFOA are sparse.”

There is much we do not know, with certainty, about this product, but corporate America is reaping a fortune on a decidedly unnatural molecule that most citizens are carrying in their bloodstream. Regulation may have failed us, here, but some might argue that more regulations, not fewer, should be in place. 

Those ubiquitous plastic bottles and containers from which we imbibe the universal solvent – water – and ingest micro-waved foodstuffs are another potential health hazard. Bisphenol-A (BPA), another chemical brought to you by the chemical industry, is used in the production of those containers. Much more is known about the health consequences of this little beastie, consider the insert, below, from the NIH

“Why are people concerned about BPA?

One reason people may be concerned about BPA is because human exposure to BPA is widespread. The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older. The CDC NHANES data are considered representative of exposures in the United States. Another reason for concern, especially for parents, may be because some animal studies report effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.”

Again, dear reader, does this suggest to you that industrialists are in need of fewer regulations, or more? 

More recently, Gary Taubes has published his new work The Case Against Sugar in which he recounts the history of refined sugar and its evolution toward dietary staple, and the possible links to the so-called ‘diseases of civilization‘.  His arguments are compelling, but inconclusive, since we are unable to subject human beings to experimentation that controls for all variables. However, Big Sugar has spent millions on lobbying over decades to increase its market-share of calories consumed while simultaneously sponsoring less-than-rigorous research with the express goal of attributing those diseases to other macro-nutrients. 

It has been said that the most dangerous place on Earth is the spot between Capitalists and their Profit. Certainly, a few obsolete regulations may still be on the books; however, the public should not be duped by businessmen into believing that regulations are placing a chokehold on the ability of business enterprises to turn a profit. As Linda C. Brinson said in “10 Unforeseen Effects of Deregulation”, “Deregulation doesn’t always work as expected. Some economists believe that deregulation usually leads to someone being hurt. It’s just not easy to predict whom.”  Or, even to what degree they might be harmed…


The Need for Restorative Justice to address the Decline of Discipline

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders, and love chatter in places of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.” Socrates circa 400 B.C.

       Whenever the daily stresses of teaching became too much to bear; whenever the tardiness, sloth or superficiality of my students drove me to distraction; whenever overwhelmed by the certainty that this is undoubtedly the generation that will deliver us to hell in a hand-basket; whenever contemplating the prospect of one day being the recipient of urgent care from one of my students; this quote served to remind that over a hundred generations of adults have shared identical feelings. This sense of historical perspective has been comforting.

     Still, how would Socrates have coped with the recalcitrant student of today? What would Socrates have thought of being compelled to instruct the unwilling while being held strictly accountable for their non-performance? How would he have managed the worry of his students having access to assault weapons? How would Socrates have reacted to a student responding to his particular method of discovering truth through questioning with “Get the [expletive deleted] out of my face, old man!”  Would Socrates have remained true to the instructional method that bears his name?

     Cultural awareness of challenges in the classroom are clouded by memory, but occasionally illuminated in cinema. Blackboard Jungle and To Sir with Love detailed with some grit the efforts to introduce civilization into the chaos of inner city schools.

     Enter the inner sanctum of the teacher’s lounge in most any school today and hear the time-honored tales of the further exploits of the Ilmar Dammit’s of the world, those ill-begotten minions of teacher purgatory possessing no other purpose than to usurp our authority, try our patience, sabotage our instructional program and test the limits of our credulity with their idiocy. Twenty-nine of thirty students may have relished the task before them and acquitted themselves favorably, but the bile generated by that thirtieth student will be the topic of conversation over coffee and corrections, for coping with the antics of that student consumed far too much of the instructional time.

     Some years ago one of my French 2 classes was graced with such a student. He arrived late, never brought his materials, belched loudly, passed gas, grinned, giggled, clutched his genitalia, made inappropriate comments to the young ladies, muttered epithets, researched and uttered vulgar expressions in the target language, wandered the classroom, declined all work, ignored most directives and occasionally napped. Please, forgive me for failing to wake him on the days he chose to take a siesta!

     Vast amounts of time were spent each day to get him seated and quiet so other students could attend to instruction. He required constant supervision or he pulled others off-task. He was oblivious to his grades. Calls home and disciplinary referrals to the administration had no effect. In short, this one student rendered thirty lives unbearable for one hour each day.

     Whenever forming groups for Cooperative Learning activities, the other members of his team would be sure to stay for a minute, or two, after class to complain about the vast injustice of his inclusion in their group.

     One day after a particularly egregious episode, security was called and he was escorted from class. A student, who a couple of years later would successfully complete the Advanced Placement exam, asked, “Mister Haines, why do we have to put up with this?” I could not offer a cogent reply.

     “Ilmar” was back in class the next day.

     Suffice it to say that this experience does not constitute just one aberration in an otherwise tranquil teaching career; he does represent my “Kobayashi Maru” exercise, the no-win scenario, of Star Trek fame. Every year presented some new trial or tribulation. With mind-numbing, spirit-sapping regularity school years would invariably begin with at least one behaviorally challenged student creating obstacles to effective instruction from Day 1.

     It is the systemic nature of such challenges that exasperate. Federally mandated guidelines and statutory policies frequently yield deleterious effects on the school environment and, consequently, hinder the education of all children. School administrators lament that the tone of a building might be changed drastically were management able to cull five-percent of students into an alternative education setting. Ninety percent of disciplinary problems are caused by that five percent, and another five percent of students who might otherwise conform to expectations find themselves in disciplinary difficulties for imitating the attention-seeking of misbehaving classmates.

So, how has it come to this?

     Question: What do you call a private school student who chronically misbehaves?

     Answer: A newcomer to the public schools.

     While virtually all students are capable of learning, not all students avail themselves willingly of the opportunity to do so. Free will is a double-edged sword. It must be observed with great regret, but it is a fact. We accept as an axiom that all children must receive formative instruction that both challenges and pushes them to their limits. However, there is an equally important corollary. As John Goodlad pointed out in A Place Called School, “Those who can and want to learn must be protected from those who don’t.”  Or, we must find ways to inspire unmotivated students to greater heights…

     One truculent and willfully disobedient student can have intolerable effects on the learning environment. If three or more such students attend one class, teachers may as well scratch “instruction” from their job description and replace it with “behavior management“.  In order to uphold the right of ALL children to learn, it is incumbent on society to make provisions to modify these behaviors whenever possible and to furnish alternative educational scenarios when misbehavior becomes unmanageable. There can be no disposable children in the 21st Century. 

     If not, we will need to change the sign out front from school to Adolescent Containment Facility

   Those who most vigorously protest education spending seldom bear witness to the wisdom of spending disproportionate amounts of time-and-effort on a segment of the school population that yields the fewest increases in academic performance. It would be shortsighted, however, to overlook this challenge. The question remains: are teachers only here to convey academic content, or to forge more productive and resilient human beings?  

   In recent years, educators have been seeking to rid schools of ‘zero-tolerance strategies‘ since a direct correlation exists, bordering on irrefutable, between suspensions, dropouts and eventual involvement with the criminal justice system in what has come to be known popularly as the school-to-prison pipeline. Most educators seek to teach children how to thrive in society, not deliver retribution by exclusion from the mainstream.  

   As for suspensions and other withholding of educational services in retribution for anti-social behavior, even the most committed educator is able to teach nothing at all to an empty chair. 

   Yes, negative feedback for misbehavior is always simpler and may produce short-term compliance. Positive feedback for acceptable behavior, though, while requiring more time and effort, yields measurable results and fewer instances of recidivism. Yes, it is labor intensive to praise and reward the 28 students arriving on time and ignore the tardy few. Ultimately, however, the tardy student’s desire for acceptance and praise usually wins out in the end… 

     There are those who will argue that there are insufficient resources to provide alternative settings and alternative protocols for the most troublesome students. However, if we are concerned about maximizing returns for our education dollars, how can we continue to ostracize so many students in dire need of inclusion in the educational process? One way to forge empathy is to model empathy by focusing on building community and relationships through the practices of Restorative Justice

     Most of the evidence is anecdotal at this point; however, its proponents are building a case for its effectiveness. A practitioner for three years in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Robin McNair is quick to state that the techniques she has learned during the training for Restorative Justice have totally transformed the climate in her classroom. “I do not raise my voice anymore, nor do I find it necessary to remove students from class. It has gotten to the point where the students correct each other’s behavior. There are still occasions where more support is needed for some of my trauma students,  but I am better able to provide that social and emotional learning students so desperately need in the 21st Century.” In her role as a certified trainer, Ms. McNair has become deeply involved in preparing an entire cadre of teachers to bring Restorative Justice practices back to their respective schools. 

    Restorative Justice is a protocol for repairing harm and restoring the school community by holding accountable those who violate the rules and allowing them to acknowledge the harm they have done and make restitution for those actions. It focuses on the needs of both the victim and the perpetrator by not focusing on the deed, but about the motivations for the deed so there can be support to help correct the behavior. The emphasis is on  inclusion rather than exclusion from the social group.  The practices of Restorative Justice seek to increase the emphasis on healing and forgiveness rather than meting out punishment and retribution.  

   Too frequently in the past, the public debate has applied the mistaken metaphor of removing ‘rotten apples’  as though youthful misbehaviors render children irredeemable. Educators, however, are hoping to install a model that perceives each child as an unformed mass of marble – replete with faults and imperfections  –  that through patience and hard work can be chiseled into a work of art. Using Restorative Justice techniques to model empathy and understanding  must eventually supplant the model of crime & punishment that has dominated the discipline policies of our public schools for far too long… 


Elections & Consequences in 2016

“In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility towards human life; towards the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of error, and of God”? James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Part II Section 3, Education.

If this quote from the landmark examination of poverty among tenant farmers in the rural South of 1941 resonates with you, then the election results of November 8, 2016 must surely give you pause since it appears that we have apparently elected the reincarnation of Jacob Marley to occupy the Oval Office. Not one of his picks for his cabinet suggests that humankind will become his business for the foreseeable future.  Sure, a few will become richer, but nothing will be said of those who get trampled in the stampede for what little manages to trickle down. 

Of particular note, the appointment of Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos as Secretary of Education must terrify all proponents of equitable opportunity in the public schools, because nothing in her résumé suggests anything but disdain for the cause of public schools as the foundation of an egalitarian society. Her policies, if implemented, will only serve to deepen the social & economic divisions of this nation by systematically dismantling access to equitable educational opportunities for all children. What Gandhi suggested about society-at-large applies also to schools, “No society can survive if it attempts to be exclusive.” 

Vouchers – most of which are delivered into economically privileged households – essentially endorse educational elitism and fail to deliver education equity to the children facing the greatest challenges. 

Reflect for a moment on the possibility that nearly every child is capable of accomplishing some stupendously unimaginable feat that satisfies a salient need of our human species. Why are we not willing to invest in children to such a degree that they might achieve what Simone Weil dubbed their “indispensable destiny“? How can we deny any child the right to that opportunity for self actualization. 

Imagine for a moment each of our most economically disadvantaged children on such trajectories, perhaps forging a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians; or designing the magnetic containment field for a fusion reactor; or isolating a molecule that deactivates the aging gene; or finding an inexpensive way to desalinate and purify seawater; or curing cancer; or leading a successful mission to deflect interplanetary debris from an Earth orbit intersect; or solving any of the host of environmental, medical or economic problems that beset all of humanity.

Which of these indispensable destinies would you sacrifice to tax cuts for the wealthy or larger profits margins for private enterprise?

Now, imagine each of those potential world changers settling for a McJob, simply because politicians could not justify the immense effort and expense of truly educating all children to the limits of their potential. Imagine those children lost in the anonymity of large classes and taught by marginally qualified instructors. Imagine those potential movers and shakers of history competing against what is known, today, as the “digital divide“. Not much imagination is required since our tale of two school systems is right in front of our eyes.

Which of these scenarios constitutes the greater loss for our society?

Too much is currently left to serendipity when it comes to educating children. A few children find their way, against all odds, out of challenging circumstances… A few years ago,  a former student returned to visit his high school teachers at our majority-poverty high school. He had not been a particular standout in high school, but he had just graduated in 3 1/2  years with a double major and was headed for a prestigious medical school.

He was among the fortunate few who undertake what Anne Sexton called “The Awful Rowing Toward God” on the way to achieving his “indispensable destiny” despite large classes and inadequate resources. Still, such success stories should be the trend and not the anomaly. Nor should such statistically insignificant anecdotes suffice as justification that we have, collectively, provided enough to remove the stumbling blocks for all children. 

No child should be allowed to languish in conditions that permit little more than a flourishing of social darwinism. Rather, it is the purview of adults to remove impediments to learning and furnish the resources necessary to achieve self actualization. It is also incumbent on adults to elect representatives who will make such schools possible for all children instead of a privileged few.  Should you believe, as does Jonathan Kozol, that ‘spending more on [prisoners] than [students] is a form of cultural suicide’ then the time for political apathy is long past with an understanding that our national greatness will ultimately be determined by how we treat the least powerful among us. 


Can greatness be a byproduct of Greed, Incorporated?

The Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump, proclaimed in late May 2016, “There’s one more thing we have to do to make America wealthy again. And you have to be wealthy to be great, I’m sorry to say it.” What good is wealth if social justice and progress is not the by-product? 

For most of us, wealth is a wholly inadequate measure of this nation; wisdom, decency and compassion must surely be included as essential variables in any formula for greatness.

First, we are already among the wealthiest nations on the planet. However, we have allowed avarice to drive our economics and permitted the concentration of ostentatious wealth in the hands of too few. Vast intergenerational wealth has been amassed through the centuries-long exploitation of uncompensated and under-compensated labor.

The right to acquire wealth is not absolute. Your right to riches does not extend to harming your neighbors.

Too many of those preoccupied by the acquisition of wealth are more than willing to poison the water table, destabilize the climate, or even instigate wars to sell weaponry. Our history is replete with examples of enterprises whose products generated immense profits but ultimately proved harmful to the citizenry. Also, tales of ruthless and unscrupulous oligarchs adorn every decade. Overall, the obsessive pursuit of immense wealth has proven itself to be damaging to our social fabric.

Together, we must exhibit the wisdom to thwart the despoiling of the environment by industrialists. Collectively, we must have the decency to bequeath a habitable planet to our progeny. In the speech cited above, the Republican nominee proposed eliminating the energy tax and, and, later, the total elimination of governmental regulation of business.  Such acts will herald a century of environmental catastrophes and societal upheaval.

Infinite riches will mean nothing to future generations if the soil will no longer support crops, the water table is poisoned, and the food chain is broken asunder.

Good for the corporate bottom line is not always good for people.

Unbridled capitalism leads to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of too few citizens and threatens the abrogation of our social contract. One need look no further than the recent obscene price gouging on life-saving medications to see that always “charging what the market will bear” further marginalizes the disadvantaged among us.

In his essay “The Problem is Civil Obedience,” Howard Zinn wrote, “The wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require a small reform, but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.” America is already an unimaginably wealthy nation, but its greatness is stymied when the hoarders of capital are permitted to invest heavily in the subversion of a government of, by and for the people.

Greatness will be at hand only if we avoid a descent into some Dickensian nightmare where the masses represent grist in the mills of corporate interest. Greatness will be at hand when more equitable shares of that national wealth are distributed among those who toil a lifetime in service to the common good, expecting little more than the potential of a better life for their children. 

This Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on June 08, 2016. It has been slightly expanded and revised. 

Dismissing the factory model school

In his landmark work “Between the World and Me”, Ta-Nehisi Coates laments the hypocritical nature of the message he received in the Baltimore City Schools, “I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance.” When managing misbehavior replaces academic instruction, intellectual development is stifled.

Such circumstances are vexing for both students and professional educators. The narrator offers praise for some of his individual educators, but criticizes a “system” that focuses on punishment and places children in peril by returning them to the streets as a consequence for misbehavior in school. The argument is not without merit.

Fear of reprisal is a singularly poor motivator for any child. Policies of “zero-tolerance” have proven ineffective at modifying undesired behaviors in the school house. 

Children, especially those children from harsh domestic environments, need more hours in instructional scenarios, not fewer. Those classrooms, however, also need to have the resources to do more than crowd children into sweat boxes for some portion of the day. Elevating young minds beyond their circumstance requires that educators possess the capacity to captivate.

We can no longer take pride in the occasional “against-all-odds” success story while failing to nurture the promise inherent in every child.

“The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental,” Joel Spring said in “Education and the Rise of the Corporate State”. Educational triage was the primary goal: identify the most capable students, and then ensure that the rest arrive at the functional literacy required to follow instructions on the assembly line and sufficient numeracy to balance a checkbook.

Schooling, back then, had little to do with optimizing learning outcomes and more with learning to acquiesce to tedium and drudgery as preparation for the conditions likely to be encountered in the industrial workplace.

During the age of the robber barons, corporatists imported cheap labor from abroad to keep the cost of labor hopelessly low and profits high for the investor class. Now, they incorporate abroad, access labor at bargain-basement prices offshore, and avoid paying taxes in the United States while taking full advantage of our free market while returning little in the bargain. The public coffers suffer as a result. 

Call the oligarchic elites of America what you will: capitalists, plutocrats, one-percenters, or political puppeteers! They consist mostly of obsessive hoarders-of-wealth. They utilize tiny portions of vast, inter-generational fortunes to persuade the political class that their power-and-privilege constitutes the natural order of things.

Is this society really intent on leaving no child behind? Then, why do we still employ an educational model that assumed a large portion of the school age population would never obtain a diploma? In his landmark work “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” Paolo Freire explained it quite succinctly. “It would be indeed naïve to expect the oppressor elites to carry out a liberating education.” That duty, therefore, falls to the rest of us. 

[This commentary appeared originally in the Prince George’s Sentinel on August 19, 2015. It has been slightly re-worked.]  

Those who cannot teach, govern

Wish a heartfelt “Happy New Year!” to all educators embarking on the new school year for it has become clear that many of our national leaders are oblivious of the eternal optimism that compels dedicated educators to stand before their students each fall.

Just a year ago, two candidates for president suggested last year that Americans will need to work harder to get ahead. Another fantasized about punching teacher leaders in the nose. Then, Governor John Kasich declared that as “King of America,” he would abolish all teachers’ lounges “where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.'”

It is clear that too many candidates for office are clueless about the real lives of those they hope to govern.

First, the nature of the typical school day does not furnish time for lounging anywhere at all. “Lounge” is a terrible misnomer; “Planning Room” would be more fitting. However, for most classroom instructors, the lounge constitutes little more than a way station to address biological needs while suffering the interminable quest to find a working photocopier.

On the rare occasions educators do engage in ‘woe is us’ discussions, it generally occurs in the interminable queue at the lone functional photocopier, likely clutching a ream of paper purchased at retail and a document they need to reproduce for class, awaiting their predictable turn to submit a request for the repair service when the machine inevitably sputters to a stop.

For the record: the teachers’ lounge is frequently the least utilized space in a school.

Decades ago, the National Labor Relations Act exempted professional educators from the provisions for overtime pay. If teachers, like lawyers, had billable hours, school budgets would nearly double. The average conscientious classroom instructor spends an average of nearly twenty hours at home on the tasks of grading papers, record-keeping and lesson planning.

Educators make the case for increasing resources in the school; and they used to hear platitudes about how important their work remains to children. Of late, however, it is far more likely that educators will be named as the scapegoat for all our national ‘failures’ in public education.

Hope hovers on the horizon. A few years ago, the Gates Foundation set out to improve the evaluation process for teachers with the Measures of Effective Teaching project. Hoping to identify the pre-supposed double-digit percentage of marginally competent instructors, their own research discovered that the actual number of struggling teachers hovers around six percent.

With that fact uncovered, the Gates Foundation changed the focus of its work in education and engaged in the work of decreasing teacher isolation in order to facilitate communication and collaboration in the education community so more teachers have increased access to the best practices of their colleagues around the country, a capacity the Gates Foundation is uniquely positioned to implement.

Unfortunately, our political leaders have yet to learn the lesson that improving instructional practice will involve trusting teachers. Instead of threatening to eliminate the federal Department of Education, it is time for the DoE to start hearing the teacher voice prior to implementing policy. 

[This commentary originally appeared on September 2, 2015 in the Prince George’s Sentinel.] 

Don’t delay start of school year to after Labor Day!

Two reasons stand out…

First, during the Agrarian Age — pre-dating the Industrial Age — farmers really did need children to help tend the crops on the family farm during the summer. Speaking as someone who, as a child, helped bring in the harvest in agricultural country, this was time that likely would have been better spent in a classroom.

Second, human beings have proven curiously resistant to changing long-practiced, traditional behaviors even when those behaviors are demonstrably deleterious to the common good. Too many of us still resist seat belts in cars & helmets on motorcycles.

Our agrarian school calendar was never predicated on the assumption of optimal learning conditions for students. Back then school was where the academic wheat was separated from the chaff. At the dawn of the Age of Information, one can only hope that future decisions about our school calendar will be grounded firmly on the concept of improving learning outcomes for every child rather than enhancing profits for private enterprise.

Here in Prince George’s County, the education community has been coping with the rigors of the externally imposed testing regimen, in part, by opening schools prior to Labor Day. The extra days of instruction have yielded dividends in improved performance on the federally mandated statewide assessments.

This local strategy has borne fruit. Some percentage of our increase in test scores can be directly attributed to the extra instructional time before March “Testing” Madness begins.

Most educators concluded long ago that standardized assessments are (how can this be phrased kindly?) less-than-ideal measures of student growth. However, as long as so much rides on those results, the education community must be free, locally, to implement any calendar that prevents the loss of resources for the schools.

Compelling all schools systems to move opening until after Labor Day is terrible public policy for many reasons, not the least of which is once again reducing the role of children to chattel for the labor mills.

[This Commentary first appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette on February 5, 2015. It has been revised. ]

No longer hailing the hometown football team…

“It would be foolish to despise tradition. But with our growing self-consciousness and increasing intelligence we must begin to control tradition and assume a critical attitude toward it, if human relations are ever to change for the better. We must try to recognize what in our accepted tradition is damaging to our fate and dignity—and shape our lives accordingly.” Albert Einstein

The time has come to do more than set aside the month of November for the so-called honoring of Native American History. Speaking as a lifelong and ardent fan of the local professional football team, add one more voice to the chorus of those who believe that the retirement of the name to the annals of history is too long overdue. As Mohandas Gandhi said, “If you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

Far too many implementations of social injustice would likely have polled quite well. It is more likely that the results of the recent poll regarding the team’s name have more in common with the “Stockholm Syndrome” than with indifference to such an objectionable epithet. As Paolo Freire posited in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “There would be no oppressed had there been no prior situation of violence to establish their subjugation.” 

After moving the team from Boston to Washington, the original owner-and-founder of this franchise, George Preston Marshall, exhibited utter indifference for furnishing equal opportunity to people of color. Likely in an effort to avoid a civil rights lawsuit, the league compelled him to desegregate his team despite the owner’s long held tradition and beliefs. It was manifestly the right thing to do.

Many would welcome a similar action today with regard to a team name that is certainly no less dehumanizing than the hiring practices of decades ago. One need not look much farther than the dictionary to find this name associated with such words as “derogatory” and “disparaging“. 

Consider the name change a first step to address the more than 500 broken treaties that litter our history. Exactly how do we honor Native Americans by reducing their cultural heritage to the archaic ethnic stereotypes represented by our corporate logos? What reverence is expressed by reducing those proud and vibrant peoples to caricatures and mascots? How can we remain so oblivious to the wrongs committed in the name of civilization? 

Historically, the indigenous peoples of North America suffered a horrific tragedy when Europeans starting landing on these shores. The invaders exploited modest scientific advances in chemistry and metallurgy to produce weaponry that facilitated the conquest and usurpation of two continents. Explorers from the colonial powers, in the name of their respective monarchs, immediately started planting flags, claiming territories and absconding with precious metals.  

The Hernando De Soto expedition rode through what is now called Florida, Georgia & Louisiana massacring entire villages. At one point his crew drove an entire village into a swamp and waited for them to drown. The Jesuit priest accompanying the expedition described De Soto in his journals as Satan incarnate. The accounts confirm the description.

Ultimately, however, the pathogens in the crew’s blood did the most damage. Eight in every ten adults of the 12 to 20 million citizens of the 500 Nations would fall to smallpox, mumps, measles and chickenpox prior to the arrival of the pilgrims in New England decades later. During the epidemic that followed, scarcely sufficient survivors remained to bury the dead.

Our own nation’s treatment of the surviving descendants fails to withstand close scrutiny on the moral plane. The incidents, too numerous to detail here, betray our collective intent: the Trail of Tears, the massacre at Wounded Knee, internment camps and reservations, the first effort at germ warfare at Fort Pitt, the wanton extermination of buffalo from the plains. Post-revolutionary America, with its lofty constitutional language intact, rejected incorporation of the native peoples and chose eradication instead.

Achieving a critical mass for change will require discipline. All those who believe it time for a reboot of the franchise will need to echo the words of the world weary Hinmatóowyalahtq’it, known to Europeans as Chief Joseph, and relay the message to the team ownership that as long as the name offends anyone, we will watch no more, forever. 

[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Sentinel on November 15, 2015.]