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.]

Help for teacher turnover can be found in Finland

“What do you do when a teacher is struggling in the classroom?
We support them.
What if you support them and they continue to struggle?
We support them more…”

Conversation with the  Finnish Minister of Education

In America, we have yet to learn that “sink-or-swim” isn’t even a good way to teach swimming, but it still constitutes the de facto professional development model in most school systems. Each autumn, more than 9,000 teachers greet our more than 125,000 students here in Prince George’s County. In any given year, it is likely that we replace about 10 percent of the teaching force. In bad years, it has been as high as 20 percent. 

“Why so many?” you may ask, on the mistaken assumption that teaching is a highly-coveted gig. Our turnover issues, though, are the result of having learned little from the most celebrated model for public education in the world, as outlined in the documentary, “The Finland Phenomenon.

In Finland, teachers provide a little less than 700 hours of direct instruction to students annually. Here, the average time for direct teacher/student interface nearly doubles that figure at nearly 1,100 hours.

For Finnish teachers, the remainder of the work day is devoted to inter-collegial collaboration, observation and job-imbedded professional development. American teachers scarcely have time to visit the restroom, much less for productive collaboration with peers.

Every teacher knows the three behaviors of effective instruction: planning, planning and more planning. However, our contractual allotment of 45 minutes for planning remains wholly inadequate to prepare for our daily 250-plus minutes of instructional delivery. 

An overwhelming majority of our teachers devote both evenings and weekends to revising lesson plans, grading assignments and attempting home contacts. There is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour of preparation for an activity that will consume ten-to-fifteen minutes of a lesson.

Before and after the contractual school day, teachers volunteer to tutor, sponsor activities and perform administrative chores. 

The 37.5-hour week is an absolute myth that should be relegated to the dustbin of history; ample evidence suggests that teachers, on average, dedicate 55 hours weekly to their vocation.

Conservative ideologues would have you believe that collective bargaining and due process impede progress in education while ignoring the inconvenient truth that teachers are unionized in Finland.

Talking heads seek to attribute blame for “low student achievement” in socio-economically challenged schools on teacher tenure while remaining curiously silent on the gross disparities in facilities and resources that reign here in the United States.

Furthermore, according to Dr. Tony Wagner of Harvard, Finland makes no use of standardized testing. Instead, the No. 1 country in education provides for the equitable distribution of adequate resources and, then, trusts teachers to meet the needs of children.


 

[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Gazette on Thursday August 14, 2014.]

Those weren’t the days, my friend…

When socializing with colleagues, the topic of conversation often turns to public education policy. A curmudgeon in the group invariably makes reference to “the good old days” marked by rote recitation of the times-tables, a time when all children were little engines of on-demand knowledge acquisition, and all teachers found a way to convey critical knowledge.

There is only one problem with the argument.

As so aptly clarified in Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, such a period of educational attainment is but a figment of the collective imagination. Still, the halcyon days of our past remain a popular myth and are employed as a standard justification for leaving education appropriations as a percentage of the Gross National Product (GNP) right where they have been stuck for decades, somewhere within shouting distance of six percent since World War II. 

Unfortunately, our Oz-like tendency to examine the past through rose-colored glasses is hampering efforts to provide adequate resources to prepare ALL children for the demands of the Age of Information.

As little as fifty years ago, a quarter of our children dropping out of school merited hardly a shrug of concern. Unfortunately, today’s drop-outs need no longer apply to the legitimate alternatives of that time.

The military has always required foot-soldiers for the skirmish line, but the equipment and weaponry of today are more advanced. Unlike the the days of old, marginally-literate high school drop-outs will find it a challenge to enlist in their service of choice.

Back then, the industrial sector welcomed former students to the workforce with the promise of a living wage for work that was often tedious and frequently hazardous. Today, those factories, when not relocated overseas, are automated and mechanized. Now, factories require writers-of-code and programmers for the robotics.

Our society continues to evolve, and technology is proving to be a double-edged sword creating careers for the highly-skilled while rendering many other trades obsolete. In a few short years, we will deal with the arrival of autonomous vehicles on our roads… How many truck, taxi and bus drivers will be put out of work? Who will create the training and the opportunities to replace that lost gainful employment?

The national goal of optimizing education for every child is a paradigm shift for this nation. “Reaching every child” is a laudable goal, but 21st Century schools will never simply arise from the 19th Century agrarian calendar, the 20th Century model of a school-day based on the assembly line, or stagnant funding streams. Our appropriation of education resources has t00 long favored the economic elite while turning a blind eye to the plight of the disadvantaged; that, too, must change.

Essential to our progress as a society, this ideal could be phrased no more eloquently than by the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, when she said, The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.


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

No time for a retreat from Maryland’s commitment to children!

“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Enacted in response to the report of the Thornton Commission, the Bridge to Excellence Act  promised equity of educational opportunity for all children in the state of Maryland. During the coming session that opens so close to the holiday in honor of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., let us implore both houses of the Maryland legislature to give serious consideration to the 620 page report of the Kirwan Commission which outlines the need for an increase of $2.6 billion to be invested in children.

Ultimately, how our state chooses to address the educational needs of all children concerns us not only as citizens, but as immortal beings. Our fates are wrapped up in the fates of the most powerless among us, those who cannot vote. To paraphrase Dr. King, we cannot become all that we might become until all our children become all they are destined to become. 

True equity & adequacy of educational opportunity for all children is in both the spirit and the letter of the Bridge to Excellence Act. The conclusions of Dr. Alvin Thornton’s celebrated commission made it clear. Dr. Thornton once said “We know the characteristics of successful, well-resourced schools; we simply allow lesser schools to exist.” It must be noted that the Free State still allows “difference” to be made legal in the schoolhouse and it would honor Dr. King’s memory if that could be remedied.

Because, long ago, “class size” was ruled not to be a “working condition” in the state of Maryland, neighboring school systems may avail themselves of different staffing ratios that create vastly different learning environments for children. There is no equity when my school system can only afford to hire forty-seven teachers per thousand students and your jurisdiction is able to afford sixty teachers per thousand. Teaching thirty-to-forty economically disadvantaged students will never be the same job as teaching twenty, or fewer, affluent students with access to a superfluity of resources at home.

Nor is there adequacy when my school system must choose between gasoline for the school buses or books for the media center while your school system manages to budget for both. Maryland has allowed such margins to exist for decades and the cascade of effects all roll down on teachers and students. The response of teacher burnout and teacher turnover in the understaffed and inadequately-equipped jurisdictions yield adverse effects on student achievement. That is difference made legal. 

Six decades after Brown vs. the Board of Education, it is simply unconscionable that too many children-of-color and children-of-poverty attend schools that are ill-prepared to deliver the services mandated by the state, the nation, and our stipulated moral values. Sadly, business model accountability measures threaten to deliver only a stick where carrots are required. In ‘The Purpose of Education’ Dr. King wrote, “Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.” 

It is no longer a mystery that the most effective schools tend to be blessed with greater resources – both human and material – the only mystery is why our political structure cannot achieve consensus on how to make those resources available to every child in every school. This despite the mandate of Article 8 in the Constitution of Maryland “The General Assembly, at its First Session after the adoption of this Constitution, shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance.”

The passion that helped fill the streets of Annapolis in support of the Thornton recommendations must be rekindled, and we must call on our legislators to have the courage to stand for all children in all zip codes. Article 8, too, is a constitutional promissory note, not unlike the one alluded to by Dr. King in his most famous speech. Maryland has made strides in moving toward equity in the schoolhouse, though to be truly just on the moral plane, a thorough-and-efficient system of free public schools must make “sameness” legal for all children and the time for social justice for children is always “right now”. 

 


[The original version of this Viewpoint appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal during January 2008. It has been revised for “timeliness”… ]