Stop Hating on Millennials

I’m done listening to older generations bitch about Millennials (born 1981-2000). It’s time to take stock of a few items that apparently have gone unnoticed by some Gen X-ers (my generation) & Baby Boomers. For ease of reading, I’ll use numerals and letters, easier to refer back to for “older folks” ;).

  1. The majority of these young folks have come into adulthood in the years just preceding and following 9/11. If you think that they were less affected because they were too young to understand the magnitude of that event, think again. If you think they would be able to shake off the feelings in a few years, forgetting how much our society changed on that day, you’re wrong. If you think the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq wouldn’t mean much to those who didn’t actually step foot on the battlefield, guess again. They have experienced just as much psychological stress as the rest of us, if not more. Their lives changed in dramatic ways just as they were supposed to be solidifying a trajectory for adulthood. And yes, many of us have individually gone through major changes, difficulties, chaos, but as a generational experience, this was pretty huge.
  2. They were implored to get all the education they could get. They had to be able to compete on a global stage, they needed to spend countless hours studying so that they might score high enough on the ACT/SAT to get into the best college with the best programs (and this is where we see the rapid increase in the segregating of the students into “tracks”, another issue that affected them intergenerationally). They were pushed not just to succeed but to excel, they had to be the best, or at least amongst the best. Simultaneously, they were being introduced to all the new technologies of the day and told they must learn how It works because It is the future. The stress that this placed upon them was immense.
  3. Not everyone went to college, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t getting smart as well. Rigor was part of the K-12 program; and along with the life events they experienced, they received the best public education that our country had ever offered. So in addition to the smarty pants’ who were getting a B.A./B.S. there were a lot of intelligent young people with a high school diploma running around the country. This did help them, initially, the mid to late 1990’s offered a pretty strong job market and gave this group hope that the future held the same promise for them that it did for their parents and grandparents. If only they knew what was coming.
  4. College costs: Along with getting as much out of high school as they could, they were strongly encouraged to get a college degree. I don’t think everybody needed/needs a college degree but in today’s world, some sort of degree (2-year, 4-year, graduate, etc) is more often required for many jobs, so they did. If college costs had risen at rates that were similar to the rest of our consumer goods, they would have been ok, but that wasn’t the case. Between 1980 and 2014 the average cost of tuition at a 4 year institution rose by 260 percent. That’s a lot of dough. So they coughed it up, or more likely, borrowed it. Not a big deal though, because in America, we can count on economic growth like we experienced in the 1990s, with the job market doing great, no worries—except, that didn’t last.
  5. After 9/11, Congress backed George W. Bushes plan to cut taxes (2003), his second big tax reduction and this one while two wars were being waged. The stupidity of such an act belies the common sense of a fifth grader. This was not the kind of thing that would benefit a forthcoming generation (skyrocketing deficits and all).
  6. The economy stagnated as did job growth in the Bush (43) era, until it stopped stagnating, and the bottom fell out. The housing market is most certainly a significant factor in this episode and its long-term consequences are still being felt today. Many Millennials are nervous about investing in a home as they can’t say for sure that:   A) it’s a good investment  B) not to mention their student loans C) and many are working jobs that are long on benefits (like free pizza fridays) but short on actual wages, and D) depending on location, there may not be a whole lot of affordable housing (rentals) which tends to have an effect on previously affordable homes (drives prices up).
  7. Jobs: What happened to all the jobs. Well, in addition to the economy collapsing in 2007…’08…’09… We lost a lot of jobs in the prior 25 years. Some businesses wanted to take advantage of cheaper labor overseas. Some needed to downsize or rightsize to account for market trends and new technology. Others found newer, more efficient methods and were able to increase productivity without increasing payroll (also known as: hey, I got new responsibilities (formerly Ted’s responsibilities), and without a pay raise, woo-hoo, they must really like me!).
  8. Speaking of student loans (4,6-B), this is one area that the government could most certainly do something about. It is in the best interest of everyone to have an electorate that is well educated (regardless of what type of work you do, you should be smart about it). Student loan interest rates, via Federal loan programs are currently set between 3.76% – 6.31%, and private loans can be several percentage points higher. Decreasing these rates to 1.5% – 3% would go a long way to cutting down on the total cost and the length of time required to pay back the loans, which means more money into the local economies, more money into savings/retirement, more money into the kids/grandkids college savings accounts. Having large debt, at a young age, is stressful; and more stressful when the good paying jobs are in short order.
  9. Student loans part II, or college tuition: Colleges need to keep the lights on, pay the professors, grounds and maintenance engineers, purchase the newest equipment (especially important in healthcare, manufacturing, computer technology, and aerospace courses), provide some sort of space for living, congregating, studying, and building camaraderie; but many schools have gone overboard on the extra amenities for the sake of attracting the “best & brightest”. This, along with bloated administrations and ridiculous salaries for the coaches of the ball teams, leads to costs being outlandish. And it would be easy to argue that it’s all worth it, if we still lived in an era of plenty; plenty-o-jobs, plent-o-salary, plenty-o-benefits, plenty-o-help for those in need, but that’s just not the world we’re living in.
  10. The perfect storm of the aforementioned crash of the U.S. economy (6), the housing market bubble popping (6), the loss of jobs over the prior 25 years (7), and student loan debts/college costs quickly rising (4,6-B,8,9) all helped lead us to where we are now. It’s a very different world than the one “we” grew up in, and their path getting here has been riddled with potholes, plagues, and sandstorms, different from the ones we experienced.

Here’s the deal. Every generation hears from previous generations about how much easier the youngens have it, how much tougher the older generations are, how today’s youth whine too much, don’t do this right, don’t do that right, and generally screw up the country. It’s not true, none of it. While we can say that the older generations have done a lot of good things, they/we have f*cked up plenty as well.

So back off the young folk. Don’t get mad when they get “all smart” on you. It’s not their fault that they spent so  much time preparing to do battle with the world’s smartest Millennials. Give them some credit for handling all the stress they’ve been dealt and moving forward in a way that makes sense for their future, not ours. Each generation does what it sees fit to best accomplish longevity for the herd, they are no different; they are finding their own way. As Jeanine Tesori said:

“If you’re doing something new there is always a sense of fear or foreboding but you’re in new ground and you have to get out your machete and cut a new path”

Ever Forward Millennials, just like the rest of us.

Change is part of our internal struggle, while difficult, it is necessary.
Change is part of our internal struggle, while difficult, it is necessary.

Achievement Gap -vs- Achievement

The achievement gap has garnered a lot of attention since the implementation of No Child Left Behind (2002). It is the raison d’être for numerous individuals, and offices, within schools, districts, states, and the federal Department of Education (not to mention the nonprofits focused on it). We think, and talk, and think, and talk, and think some more, about how to eradicate this persistent “gap” in our children’s educational outcomes. But nobody (or, nobody I know) is asking, “what are the children on the ‘wrong side’ of the gap learning” (they focus on what the students are not learning)? Because, they are learning something. Is anybody else curious about that? Or do I stand alone (a place I’m fairly accustomed to). These kids, the ones who fail to achieve the rank of “proficient” are not dumb— nor are they lazy or “bad”; they are kids who are growing up in a world that many people know nothing about.

Measuring achievement is nothing new for schools. Standardized tests have been around in one form or another for more than half-a-century. The idea of understanding what kids know, how well they know it, and at what age they are learning it, is not a bad idea; it helps teachers figure out how better they can help those who are falling behind in particular areas. However, the newer ideas of sanctioning schools (under NCLB), students, and teachers, based on these tests, is not helpful. Preventing a school from receiving needed funds, or a high school senior from graduating, is not conducive to furthering educational outcomes. Furthermore, the idea that we need to have these high stakes tests (read: high stress for students, teachers, administrators, et al.) administered annually between 3rd grade and 12th grade (some variability by state), defeats the purpose of a well-rounded education—as we see more and more time spent on tested subjects (math & reading primarily) and test prep, meaning less time for everything else: social studies, phy-ed, art, music, recess, technology, languages, etc.

As we begin the new school year, it might be helpful to start thinking about the reason we send kids to school in the first place. While the world has changed a great deal in the past 100 years, the reason for providing a free education has remained relatively stable—we want to prepare succeeding generations to successfully carry on, and improve upon, what’s been done prior to their arrival, while ensuring that they understand the importance of their role as members of our citizenry. For the life of me, I can’t understand how scoring proficient on a given test can be used as a means of measuring a child’s ability to succeed in the world. To assume that they are not adequately learning because of a test score, is akin to assuming that Brett Favre was a terrible quarterback because he threw so many interceptions. Both assumptions are false.

There are all kinds of things that come into play in any child’s education. For starters, where they are born and spend the first few years of their life is extremely important. Children who experience violence, hunger, poverty, instability, abuse, for an extended period of time, are more likely to lack the all-important ability to trust others. Furthermore, the connections that are used to identify situations and react accordingly (synapses) are more likely to be “short-circuited” before they are able to fully develop. Because the human brain develops more in the first three to four years than it does for the remainder of one’s life, the child’s early environment will have an enormous impact on the remainder of his/her life.

“Because of the brain’s plasticity during the early period of rapid development, the younger the child the more vulnerable is their developing brain to the effects of the environment. Adverse environments can be particularly harmful and have long lasting effects, altering the developmental trajectory of a child’s learning” (Goswami, 2008).¹ 

Second, the surroundings of their early years (3-10 y.o.a.) play a significant role on whether or not they are able to develop the skills needed to perform well on these tests. Children who are in a near-constant state of fear, depression, anxiety, i.e. stressed, are less likely to have the ability to focus on those tasks that are not immediately relevant to their general well-being. Any kid that experiences poverty at a young age can appreciate the realities of being hungry, not having seasonally appropriate clothing, uncertainty about whether there will be electricity in the house, or if the house they were staying in last week is different from the house they are staying in this week. Add to that list the possibility of growing up in a neighborhood that experiences greater instances of violence and one has the makings of a very difficult childhood where survival is the primary goal and everything else is secondary.

These children (and not all of them score below proficient, but of those that do, these kids make up a disproportionate number) are extremely smart, highly motivated, and have the ability to adapt and overcome circumstances that we find in places like Chi-Raq or Bodymore, Murderland. The fact that the majority of these kids grow up to graduate high school is proof of their tenacity. And yes, you can question the curriculum, the teachers’ subjectivity, the “rigor” of a particular course or school, but you cannot question the child’s desire to be successful and figure out what they need to do in order to achieve that success (however they choose to define it).

When we rely on standardized tests to provide us with data, we must consider the context of the child’s entire situation. Some students who are attending the “best” schools in America have test anxiety and don’t score proficient. Their teachers can vouch for their intelligence, ability to think critically and creatively, but they can’t explain why the student performs so poorly on a test. Conversely, we find students who are experiencing homelessness and yet they find a way to achieve at the highest level. What’s going on in their brains (which includes what happened during the brain’s formative years) is playing a remarkable role in the current scenario. So how is it that we continue to make such extreme outcries about the achievement gap when we fail to address the problem at its core.

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There are places that are addressing the problem from the start. The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and other Promise Neighborhoods across the country, are working with communities to promote healthy living, stable housing, and intensive educational assistance before the child enters kindergarten. Additionally, many nonprofits have a niche and they work tirelessly to bring about change in their area. This is work that must be done in order to bring about a transformation that will provide greater access and opportunities for these children. These are great first steps in a long process, but we need to think deeply about what the future holds for our youth and what will provide them with the greatest opportunity to succeed. Will tests determine their worth or give them an edge when applying for a job, or would we be better served to focus their efforts on more meaningful classroom objectives?

Students achieve regardless of what a test score tells us. They achieve in various ways. Some students, who can’t pass algebra their first time (or second or…) find jobs working in retail or restaurants. They have basic numerical literacy and therefore are capable of running a register, making change, doing the simple accounting required on a balance sheet or an inventory list. They don’t have to know the quadratic equation to do those things, they have common sense. And, if they decide to remain in the business, and the business requires them to learn more advanced math, they’ll figure it out; because it becomes part of their routine, it’s not some random equation asking them to determine the function of x given y (or vice versa).

Making test scores more important than they actually are is damaging to students, communities, and teachers, in the form of a stigma that attaches to anyone involved in the outcomes. The more important outcomes, the ones that we should be celebrating and learning from, are those achievements that don’t show up on a test. When students figure out what their passion is, and then begin the process of moving towards getting paid to work in a capacity related to that passion, that’s achievement. That’s what success looks like. Why should we tell kids that success is dependent upon something that they find trivial or boring, or not worth the time. I realize that this comes across as radical, but I believe very strongly that once we start providing children with opportunities to learn about a passion they have, we will see graduation rates increase and greater successes both in and out of the classroom. Stefanie DeLuca digs into this idea (identity/passion projects) in her book, Coming of Age in the Other America; it is an extremely important piece of the achievement gap conversation.

Apprenticeship programs (Pipeline etc.) are a feature of Minnesota’s long-standing commitment to helping people find work that is both meaningful and pays a decent wage. Students can benefit greatly from the introduction that is provided, both to the work and to the network they build while learning a trade. And, the employers benefit from the opportunity to show a young person the right way to do a job— which will pay benefits to the broader society (economy) regardless of whether that young lady stays with that company for 40 years or takes on a new opportunity a year after completing her apprenticeship.

So here’s the thing, do we want to live in a society that picks “winners and losers” based on test scores? This means we are identifying those who “deserve” a shot at real success and those who are relegated to a lifetime of unsatisfying work… when they can get it. This is the way it’s been for too long in our nation; the kids born into the “right” circumstances, are afforded the greatest opportunities with nearly unlimited access to exploit those opportunities. While the kids born into less than perfect circumstances are relegated to whatever’s left, e.g. school funding, employment, housing, etc., etc.

The issue is not terribly complicated, nor are the means of addressing it. It is the political affairs that complicate matters. Here are a few ideas, some of which are in practice in some school districts around the nation, but not everywhere.

1) Fiscal policies that provide greater equity in funding are a good place to start. We know that the challenges are greater in schools that serve a larger percentage of students experiencing poverty; so why not give them significantly greater funds to address those needs. That might mean shifting some property taxes to surrounding districts, which could cause an uproar, but uproars are part of the deal (elected officials are supposed to hammer out these types of details…compromise). And, while using the equity lens— 2) lets ensure that weighted student funding is being used, and used properly. We need to target the children with the greatest needs, be they physical, mental, or emotional.

3) Expanding the Promise Neighborhood model can provide the type of outreach and assistance that make real differences in the community’s future. This does not imply a similar scale for every new program, as smaller sites could provide similar benefits; it is the actions undertaken that fuel the change. 4) Moving to Opportunity (MTO) (1994-2004), a program designed to study the effects of providing housing vouchers to low-income families (random assignment with a control group), had some fairly significant effects, 20 years later. Providing stable housing, in neighborhoods that are not populated primarily by families experiencing poverty, makes a big difference, especially for the children.

And finally, 5) stop with all the testing. Provide students with more course options (to include the return of industrial arts and home-economics in addition to new classes that reflect markets with high job growth potential: aircraft maintenance, cyber-security, renewable energy, bio-technology, etc.); make connections between what is being taught and its relationship to real-world work; take advantage of current apprenticeship programs and develop new ones; and implement passion/identity projects that will capture each student’s imagination and provide them with extra incentive to take full advantage of their educational opportunity.  In this way, we can make education relevant to all students.

One other thought related to current practices; the high achieving students (like the 9th grade girl who is doing college level math) should not be stuck taking random courses that are preventing her from reaching her full potential. Those students who are able to move more quickly through the system (1-5 percent), should be able to do so. Why hold them back when they have the ability to succeed at a more advanced level? Do we tell the 9th grade basketball phenom that he can’t play on the varsity because he’s too young? No, we allow him to take control of his future by using his talents to expand his opportunities. It’s not that difficult to allow students to move more rapidly, the system only needs to accept the change.

At the end of the day, it’s not enough to thoroughly analyze the data provided by these tests. We can’t make assumptions based on some scores and potentially inaccurate or incomplete observations concerning students’ lives. Students deserve better than that. They are entering a world vastly more complex than the world of just 20 years ago. They don’t need to learn rote memorization skills, they need creative and critical thinking skills. They need people to believe in them, inspire and motivate them, and then, help them up when they stumble (and stumbling is all-important here, learning from mistakes is critical to any kids development). The real-world is not standard in any way shape or form. Life is messy so we might as well embrace that messiness and let students know that it only gets more difficult after graduation. By giving them a few tools, we can help them move through the next stage.

So there it is, a fix for our achievement gap problem, rather simple. Why didn’t anybody think of this before. The playing field in education, and life, is inherently unequal, that’s the nature of our world. And while it is in everyone’s best interest to work on leveling the playing surface, it will not happen in the near future, and maybe not even in the distant future. That, however, is no reason to stop trying. But until that day comes, focusing our efforts on providing the kinds of opportunities that are more likely to result in real achievement, measured in paychecks and well-being, ought to be the goal. Anything less is shortchanging the students who have already been robbed of their lunch money… change is all they’ve got left.

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Manhattan-Lower East Side-SoHo

 

¹ Winter, Pam. Engaging Families in the Early Childhood Development Story – Neuroscience and early childhood development: Summary of selected literature and key messages for parenting. March 2010.

http://www.scseec.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Reports%20and%20publications/Publications/Early%20childhood%20education/Engaging%20Families%20in%20the%20ECD%20Story-Neuroscience%20and%20ECD.pdf

The Art of Failure

Minneapolis trainspotting
Minneapolis trainspotting

failure. a small word, relatively speaking. a word that evokes images of “losers“, “has-beens“, “never-will-be’s“, and their ilk. a term that reminds us of what we do not want to be, do not want to be associated with; that thing we wish to never experience. it is what drives us to, if not greatness, mediocrity, because mediocrity is not failure, for most. But the truth is, we all fail, daily. Some of us more than others. And that is not ok…

Failing is as much a part of our lives as sleeping, eating, and interacting with our surroundings. As surely as one gets out of bed in the morning, one fails. These failures can be related to money (made or spent), time (wasted or just lost), status (at work, in school, amongst family, friends, the Jones’ (notice the failed attempt at spelling “you’re”)), or anything else that consumes your thoughts for more than a few minutes a day. Don’t fret, you’re not alone, you’re part of a club with over 7 billion members. And, with each failure, a new opportunity to learn is presented.

This is where The Art piece comes into play (I’ll leave the science part to the neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, et al.). Life, like art, provides us with extraordinary opportunities to try something, repeatedly, until we get it right, or give up; the choice is ours. Each new attempt is practice, something Mr. Iverson broke down for us in 2002 (and A.I. was talking about so much more than just “practice”). Anyway, the idea of trying repeatedly should not be viewed with an eye on how many times we fail, rather we should see each new attempt as being that much closer to success.

And what about those who never achieve the goal they’ve set? Aren’t they failures? No, it doesn’t work that way. The person who tries to quit using tobacco 10 times and starts back 10 times hasn’t failed, they’ve simply made it more likely that they will succeed the 11th time, or 12th, whatever. And maybe they’ll never quit, maybe smoking is the one thing they have in life that is comforting in their extremely high stress job/life. Maybe having a cigarette keeps them sane when what they’d really like to do is take a baseball bat to their boss’s car. In this case, success is represented in the form of a Beamer without 30 dents and missing windows. We don’t know what people are going through, how their individual experiences have shaped them and how those events have affected their current state of mind.

The failures we experience are lessons to be studied. They offer advice on how to do better the next time—which is not to say that the next time will be any more successful; but the next failure may occur due to some other unforeseen circumstance, if you learned from the previous attempt. If  not, then the next failing will likely exhibit, not-so-surprisingly, familiar events and outcomes. This is true in any type of policy formulation and/or implementation as well, failures occur everywhere and on a continuous basis (we also see massive failures in the problem definitionagenda setting and evaluation stages). What is rare, and therefore celebrated, is success, in any arena.

Fairly successful paella (the failures were minimal)
Fairly successful paella (the failures were minimal)

Success, the opposite of failure, is almost never captured on the first attempt. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” is good for kids to hear but it might be better to tell them, “At first, you will fail; fail well, learn, and try again“. The failings are the very phenomena we need in order to figure out how to be successful. Success comes over time; the getting there part is not easy, quick, nor a particularly glamorous undertaking. And that is what makes It so much more satisfying when It is finally achieved.

Celebrate the tenacity of the Roses that grow from concrete. - Like Tupac did.
Celebrate the tenacity of the Roses that grow from concrete. – Like Tupac did.

Malcolm Gladwell studied people who had become masters of their professions and found that what many had in common (aside from greater access and opportunity (from birth)) than the average individual) was the number of hours they were able to dedicate to mastering a particular concept/field. As others have found, however, this theory rests, at least in part, on the stability of the particular profession, i.e. rules, regulations, static conditions, as well as the individual’s penchant for the work. Taken together, this leads me to believe that life, in it’s simplest form, is all about failure. The countless hours spent learning, enjoying the process of learning, which is to say learning from the failing, is what ultimately makes one successful. And so those rare moments, when we aren’t failing, are so out of sync with the rest of our routine that we have to stop and take notice, celebrate, dance, hoot-n-holler, and partake in all form of Tomfoolery. That is, if you are of this world. There are those who, practice aside, make their job look too easy, they mock us mere mortals by their very existence.

Back to The Art of Failing. Find new and unusual ways to fail (meaning try things in new ways). The more you are able to learn from each failure, the more quickly you are able to find A successful way, which is different from THE successful way. Very few activities have just one way that they can be accomplished. That’s the beauty of art and failure, we can each produce our own “works” that make sense to us (if nobody else), and which we can learn from because we understand our own methodologies, our own thought processes, better than we understand someone else’s.

Intentional misspelling to make a point?
Intentional misspelling to make a point? Plural of the obvious? Reference to the beach where the opium was burned?

In policy making, this idea becomes more difficult, some would say an exercise in futility. When multiple sects/groups (extreme or otherwise) are attempting to craft any policy, they should consider the effects said policy will have on the larger community (school district, city, state, nation, etc.), not just the intended recipients. Policy failures are not bad if the failure occurs prior to the implementation stage, where they can still be reworked. But once you’ve gotten to the point of execution, it means the policy has become law; and if mistakes/bad ideas are uncovered by those affected by the policy, the enactment will likely still go forward while people look for loopholes, end-arounds, and other ways to mitigate the bad policy that passed through the system (which is to say lots of meetings that are unlikely to produce much in the way of good ideas).

There are many examples of policies that are failures—were bound to fail from the beginning, and for all the good intention of those involved, their lack of  prior learning (first-hand knowledge gained by failing in the setting/system) led to the failed policy being implemented. The field of education is ripe with this type of failure. Too often, in recent decades, we’ve seen well meaning (always assume best intentions) politicians, with the assistance of lawyers, business folk, PhDs armed with literature reviews and in-depth research, and lobbyists, come up with new ideas to address students and teachers “shortcomings”. The primary issue that is almost always immediately apparent upon the policy taking effect, is the lack of teacher and student input concerning the new rules. Sure, they probably interviewed a teacher or two, from the “best” school in the state, to get their thoughts, but never considered talking to the educators who work in the schools where 95% of students are experiencing poverty, trying to learn in severely crowded classrooms with textbooks that are 30-plus years old and kept together with duct-tape, masking-tape, glue, and pixie dust. In these settings, students and teachers first priority is not a test score improvement or the closing of an achievement gap, but ensuring the students are not hungry, not suffering any form of abuse, physical ailment, mental health condition, and if so, finding them the proper professionals to help. Additionally, teachers are trying to ensure that their classrooms are safe spaces for all students; preventing bullying behaviors of LGBTQ, smaller, weaker, “different”, and those students who have been singled out for any number of reasons (all non-sensical) has become a priority that many schools are no longer ignoring. Beyond that, most teachers know that a test score means virtually nothing when it comes to finding success beyond high school. Understanding social mores, developing soft skills, learning how to adapt to the culture of a new work/school environment, these are the concepts most important for the more than 50% of kids who never attend a four year institution (and, these concepts are important to the students who do attend 4-year schools, but these students are more likely to get away without mastery of or competence in the aforementioned areas because of a variety of other factors, to include the utterly ridiculous, appalling, & repugnant).

Failing is something that is done both with and without intention. Like the Potter who is creating a vessel for aesthetic and functional purposes, she intends to make a unique creation and therefore tries new ideas/methods. Rarely does the new technique work the first time, but she tries again, and again, learning, relearning, perfecting the imperfections until…Voilà! So too is life a series of failed attempts that over time enable us to accomplish daily tasks and grand achievements (this is similar to what I do on a daily basis, literally and figuratively). Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the failure, use this new knowledge to reconfigure and move forward (the glass half full concept is good to remember, it means there’s room for more beer learning).

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Ducky (The Dutchess) posing for her Glam-Dog photo-shoot. A real Princess. This is a non-sequitir.

I fail, to my wife’s chagrin, a lot. I’ve got well over the requisite 10,000 hours needed for mastery of this non-professional profession. Every day, upon waking, I know I have already failed. My lack of height (Vikings are supposed to be at least 6 feet tall), lack of six/seven/eight-figure salary, my messy office space, my inability to grasp the ridiculousness of trying to do it all, and that’s just in the first few minutes of being awake.  I failed to take the Dutchess on short walks (going around the block routinely turned into an hour of lollygagging around the neighbor’s (a pizza joint) garbage can, the smell of pizza crusts, sausage, and pasta remnants emanating from its interior proved too strong a temptation to resist. And the list goes on, and on, and… But, for all of my failings, I have gained knowledge, great volumes full of all manner of wisdom and scholarship. And I’m not done, I’ll continue failing until I go to that big Beach in the sky, the one where dogs and cats are welcome, the two best beers, Cold and Free, are served on tap, and the failures of the past are no longer relevant.

And so, the idea of failing not being ok is still true—it is better than ok, it is wonderful, and great, and stupendous…and, necessary; because repeated failures often lead to the greatest success. Without failure we don’t advance, we don’t learn, we don’t move civilization to new heights (some would say this has been the model of the GOP recently, I won’t go that far but I do wonder if the word “progress” is in their dictionary). We get stuck and sit around waiting for somebody else to do something, just waiting on the world to change. Each new failure means we aren’t waiting on anybody, we’re doing it, we’re taking the reins for our particular situation and doin’ the damn thing.

Alejandro I (yucca tree), aged 17 years, failed to survive the winter of 2010-11, but Alejandro Jr. (from the same roots) is alive & well.
Alejandro Sr. (yes, he is a yucca tree) failed to survive the winter of 2010-11, but Alejandro Jr. (same root system) is alive & well.
Alejandro Jr.
Alejandro Jr., proving success is possible after a great failure.

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career/ I’ve lost almost 300 games/ 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot/ and missed./ I’ve failed over, and over and over again in my life./ And that is why/ I succeed.

 Michael Jordan

Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.

Life Policies: “Best Practices”

The last thing graduates need at this time of year is another article extolling them for their hard work and dedication, and offering unsolicited advice that pertains to their future. That said, it may be handy to reflect upon the skills and knowledge that have been picked up along the way. From that starting point, one can expound on the deeper meanings and offer takeaways that expand future opportunities. Moreover, this would be an appropriate topic for a blog that logs millions of hits daily and is ranked as a perennial “Top 10” (according to people who know these things); but since The Oatmeal is a little busy with other fun stuff, I guess I’ll do it. Whether finishing up your first full year in kindergarten (a disproportionate percentage of  my readers fall into this category, but that bodes well for 26.3s long-term viability), leaving elementary behind for middle school (a.k.a. Junior High), pushing on from 8th to 9th grade, receiving your high school diploma, or attaining one or another type of college parchment pronouncement, here are some Best Practices for life (and these should in no way be confused with the “best practices” used by Trump University, Enron, Washington Mutual, or Lehman Brothers).

First off, make sure you have a list of life policies that you support (e.g. people should be nice), policies you could support, if they were enacted (like, free ice cream every saturday, for everybody), policies you don’t find logical (such as, one can join the Marines at 18 but can’t legally drink a beer until they are 21, with minor exceptions), & policies you believe were written by cavemen (Smoot-Hawley, yes, literate cavemen). And then expand your list based on what you’ve learned in your time on earth.

Kindergartners often leave their first year with a sound understanding of basic social skills. It’s not a stretch then to move from simple niceties (Hello, Please, Thank You, Sorry, Pardon me, snack sharing) to the ideas of: sharing more than a snack with your fellow wo/man; holding a door for the person behind you; comforting a person or animal that is scared; standing up for those who may be unable to speak/act for themselves: the elderly, children, persons with physical, mental, emotional, disabilities, pets and other animals; and those who often go unheard: the homeless, people experiencing poverty, individuals suffering any form of abuse, the marginalized members of our communities. Six-year-olds know many of these things a posteriori, there’s no reason the rest of us shouldn’t be able to think about others’ well-being, in addition to taking care of oneself.

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By the time kids finish 5th grade, they have figured out that what they are good at is very often an activity that they enjoy, it’s not a coincidence. Some have a natural talent (e.g. athletics), some have been gently pushed in a general direction (e.g. readers/writers), some find that numbers just make sense in their heads, and others, well, some kids like everything, they are curious about the world.

Curiosity is a trait we are born with, i.e. it is innate. As children grow, and learn, and make mistakes (lots of this by the end of 5th grade), most of them come to understand that curiosity is a precursor to ridicule. Anytime you admit that you don’t know something, you open yourself up to comments from those who know, or think they know. Due to this form of “peer-sneering”, the overtly curious fall into two camps, those who keep the questions to themselves (which then divides into another set of camps; the closet nerds/dorks/geeks and the kids who learn to become less curious and accept the status quo without question)…

And this is a good opportunity to talk about sheep. Those who “follow blindly” as some would say, are not sheep. Two differences; 1) this assumes sheep are not smart, au contraire. Sheep understand that they are not lions or tigers or bears and therefore they place their trust with the shepherd and the sheep dogs (the caretakers/protectors). 2) People are smart; they have figured out how to navigate their own waters without capsizing their boat. This doesn’t make them weak, or stupid, or followers, it makes them people. Not everyone was born to lead, or question everything, or fight the power; nor was everyone born to build bridges, analyze massive volumes of excel data, or teach children how to read. Remember that if we were all the same, our world would be a very dull place and we know what the dull life leads to.

…and those who don’t care (like me) about what others think, we are just curious about everything and want to know who, what, why, how, when, where, and furthermore, are you certain.

Another thing noticed by graduates of the 5th grade is the speed at which life is moving—the pace of everything has quickened (excluding snails, tectonic plates, & molasses). This is to say, the adults are cramming more stuff into the same number of hours (13 & ½ to be exact). Therefore, regardless of what category of curiosity you fall into, attention spans need to be lengthened if you hope to pick-up all of the bits of information that are being thrown at you. And whether one is trying to learn everything—because why not, or because that’s the better of the two options you’ve been given in life, or you are focusing on exactly what the adults existing in your hemisphere have asked you to focus on, remember how much fun it is to be curious and learn new things. Appreciate the fleeting moments of bliss that come from every extraordinary discovery. They are often unexpected and appear out of left field—from people that you may not even be aware of. Therefore, introduce yourself to classmates that are outside of your peer-sphere. Share the joys of an aha moment as you get to know your cohort. Each member has a strength or three and a weakness or five, learn from each other, help each other, and begin to engage in the larger community you are a part of. Middle school can be scary, do everything you can to make the next few years as pleasant as possible.

Paisley Park Tribute & Memorial: 24 April 2016
Paisley Park Tribute & Memorial: 24 April 2016

If you’ve made it to the end of 8th grade, you’ve gotten through the most confusing and confounding part of life (for most). Congratulations! Between the ages of 10 and 14, our bodies and brains undergo a lot of changes. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social, and environmental transformations (i.e. health & wellness) can make your head spin out of control. It is at this point that you need to “Slow It Down. Put more thought into your actions, inactions, and potential actions. Don’t “just do it”, as the shoe company implores you to. Contemplation should become a staple of your lifestyle diet.

Along with the changes they’ve undergone, another characteristic of the “rising” 9th grader is their acceptance, to varying degrees, of those with whom they don’t share many visible similarities. Many students are putting 2 & 2 together and realizing that a label: “Brown, Yellow, Puerto Rican, or Haitian” Native American, African American, African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Hispanic/Latina, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous Peoples from every continent, White, Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Queer, Nerd, Jock, Drama-kid, Geek, Punk, Skater, Gearhead, is not as important as the fact that we are all human; one race of people with a multitude of differences that should be respected, celebrated, understood, and cherished for what they are—unique.

High school graduates have learned a lot about the word “character”, and standardized testing. Only one of those will have any long-term affect on their life (I know what some of you are thinking, and no, I don’t think the ACT/SAT etc. are all that important either, not in terms of how one lives their life). Character; what it means, how it affects one’s life trajectory, why it’s important, and which qualities are the most salient in each individual’s particular situation, these are the things that will impact and guide lives. The residue that adheres to the students, from engaging each new day (this is the foundation of character), will carry them through the remainder of their journey. A few of the most essential character traits, in my book, are: resolve (a.k.a. grit, tenacity, sticktoitiveness, all of which tie in to work ethic), empathy, judgement, tact, and optimism; qualities found in many a 26.3er.

The grad who plans to join the Navy needs to have a lot of resolve. They spend long periods of time at sea, often with Jar-Heads aboard. The combination of a new environment and living alongside Marines is more than enough to make them question, if only briefly, their choice of military branch. Resolve gives them the ability to deal with that insecurity and move forward (or let the boat move them forward). Empathy and judgement; these two go hand-in-hand. If a person has developed a strong sense of empathy for others, they are likely to use better judgement when dealing with a given situation. They understand that life is not painted in black and white; it is, rather, a million shades of grey.

Tact. I have noticed a general decline in public prudence and sensibility. This is not to imply that everyone is rude and thoughtless but there are trends. Customer service continues to decline (this could be directly related to wages), both in real and perceived terms (and perception, to the perceiver, is reality). Tact is not reinforced; rather, the opposite of tact, disregard or carelessness in one’s manners, is occasionally reprimanded with little or no mention of the steps needed to correct the behavior. Be proactive, take the opportunity to teach when it presents itself. And if someone is taking time to teach you (without being an ass about it), pay attention. The so called “soft skills” are equally, if not more, important, in many entry-level jobs. 

Optimism is maybe the most important of all. We live in times that have seen long-term wage stagnation, hyper-vigilance amongst some individuals who are not comfortable in our increasingly diverse country, extreme political divisiveness, and an economy that works really well for about 1/5 of our population, but not nearly as well for the rest of us. It’s hard to be optimistic when “everything” seems to be working against us. Yet, not everything is horrible. The economy is getting better, if ever so slowly. We’re still waiting for the labor market to hit critical mass, in hopes of seeing wages rise, but jobs are returning, in most places. And hey, by 2021, you might be a “baller, shot caller, [with] 20″ blades on [your] Impala“.

Beyond high school, the age of post-secondary graduates varies dramatically. Non-traditional students are becoming a norm and the subjects covered are much broader now. The variety of jobs that exist today includes many that nobody had thought of 30 years ago (e.g. app developer, Baltimore Ravens cheerleader, professional hacker). So, in order to address everyone, from chefs to shellfish farmers, aircraft mechanics to actuarys, and educators to eco-system managers, I’ll recount some of the most relevant knowledge as it relates to every profession in every field, everywhere, ever (ok, maybe that’s a little too much).

The two concepts that professors should have figuratively beaten into your skull, regardless of what the course syllabus spelled out, are how to think creatively and how to think critically. The combination of these thought processes bear responsibility for our collective future (that’s heavy, maybe too heavy, but it’s true). As a world, we are going to have to be extremely creative in coming up with new ways to support a larger population while witnessing the automation and mechanization of more jobs. This doesn’t guarantee a net loss of future jobs but it does require a lot of thought about how we’re going to make our economy work for everyone, not just the lucky “makers“.

Critical thought is something we’ve always done, it’s just that we aren’t told we’re thinking critically when we are young. The idea of observing, reflecting, thinking about the how and why (analyzing), and then taking that knowledge and forming new ideas and sharing them, is a complex way of describing what four-year-olds do at the beach. They look at a sandcastle and then go about figuring out how to construct their own. And while they’re at it, they often try some new-fangled engineering fete, fail, and move forward. With all the knowledge accumulated over the previous 14 – 20 school-years, post-secondary graduates should have a pretty good idea of how to do this. The real challenge is making sure that they are working across sectors, industries, and geographic locales. Combining creative and critical thought is not new but it should be practiced more liberally so that together we will be able to solve just about any problem we encounter (still working out how to combat Nyquil packaging).

Now Hear This!

Don’t take the bad advice of the “greatest” graduation speakers. “Go[ing] confidently in the direction of your dreams”, “Follow[ing] your passion”, etc., etc., is great… if your dreams include being a math teacher in rural America, lots of call for that particular position. However, if you dream of reading Shakespeare while noshing fish & chips and quaffing a Tallgrass Brown Ale, at the Anchor & Hope, in the Southwark neighborhood of London (yes, the same neighborhood where the Globe Theatre resides), then I might suggest you adjust your navigational settings to something a little more realistic. Like teaching Shakespeare, and Morrison, and Ellison, and Cisneros, and Fitzgerald, to students who will, generally speaking, not show much interest in the subject matter (which is not to say that they won’t learn anything, just don’t expect much when teaching certain books). But that’s ok; because there are students that will be engaged and their lives will be changed by the work you do and the bonds that you build with them. And, because teaching provides a steady wage (not as much as it should, but steady). Of course, if you are independently wealthy or have parents who are willing to bankroll your efforts to achieve Nirvana, etc., no, the other nirvana, then by all means, do it up; and bring a friend if you feel so inclined (back to the kindergarten knowledge—sharing).

I’m not advising anyone to become a disinterested automaton, mindlessly working to increase profits and productivity. Dream; Dream BigLive with Passion; imagine SeReNdIpItOuS events, do all the things that provide your spirit with the fuel it needs to carry on. But, remember, life is a lot easier when you can pay your rent on time, eat regularly, buy seasonally appropriate clothing, and have a little “back-up” in the bank, for emergency situations. So, if at all possible, find work that pays a living wage, appreciates you, helps to advance your skill set while dropping new knowledge into your noggin, and encourages you to be creative in your processes. Then, each day, use your remaining hours to work on your dreams and passions.

Lastly, here are a few pieces of advice that you probably didn’t learn in school but are of equal import.

  1. When watching/listening to a story that involves people making decisions that you don’t agree with, it’s good to remember that while one may not agree with the action(s) taken by said person/group, those actions, placed in the proper context, can be understood.
  2.  “It’s better to feel pain, than nothing at all; the opposite of love’s indifference“.
  3.  Sometimes you need to “Take a Walk. Not necessarily to Bolivia or even across state lines, just get out and walk, clear the head, breathe, give yourself an opportunity to think.
  4. Whenever you are considering new laws, rules, et al. (in any setting), think about who’s not at the table. Too often we witness the implementation of new policies that haven’t been properly vetted. Key stakeholders are left out of the negotiations and therefore they don’t have any real connection to the new legislation. You can’t blame somebody for ignoring a policy if they had no voice in the process.
  5. Take a road trip if you have the means; “Talladega“, Baltimore, Kansas City, El Segundo, or anywhere else that you haven’t yet ventured. Meet new people, try new foods and see America’s beauty from a different vantage point.
  6. Sometimes you’ve gotta let loose. However, it is advisable, during these escapades, to have a trustworthy friend nearby, so as to keep you from doing anything that may prevent future employment opportunities from occurring.

Best of Luck and Congratulations, as you turn the page and step into a new chapter in your life.

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Non-Standard Ideas for America’s Public Schools

Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur created by Kindergarteners at Soutwest Baltimore Charter School (2009)
Kindergartenhistorysaurus: finger-painted collage, newspaper stuffed, dinosaur, created by Kindergarteners at Southwest Baltimore Charter School – (2009)

The value of any education cannot be found in a test score. Education’s value is fully realized only after what is learned becomes useful to the learner.

With President Obama’s recent statement concerning the overabundance of standardized tests (ST) in public schools, it appears as though common sense will finally be injected into the highest levels of the public education conversation. This is not to say we will see the end of standardized testing anytime soon; but, we can at least begin thinking about the day when these tests, and the standards they attempt to measure, will not be the focus of every politician’s education policy. If we’ve learned anything from this federally mandated experiment over the past decade and a half, it is this; standardized tests are really good at predicting one thing, socio-economic status.

It seems as though standards and the tests that measure achievement (and all that goes along with the entire debacle), have been at the forefront of education policy forever, yet it was implemented at the Federal level just thirteen years ago. The idea of Test – Measure – Sanction/Reward, was not immediately questioned by many members in the profession; but by the end of President Bush’s (43) first term, a majority of educators saw the bigger picture—and the effects on students: heightened anxiety; increased apathy ; and new pressures for many students who are already enduring elevated stress levels in their everyday life. The calls for reform grew larger and more vocal and finally we have turned a corner.

Since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB (2002))(the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)), our way of educating children has changed dramatically, and not so much for the better. With each passing year, increased pressure has been placed upon educators and administrators to improve test scores so as to avoid the sanctions that may come from not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP). On the surface, this might seem like a logical way to ensure the youth of our country are getting the best education possible. In reality, it means corners will be/have been cut, laws will be/have been broken, and many in the system will/have suffer(ed). Additionally, curiosity, creativity, and the joy of learning have taken a back seat to raising test scores.

My biggest concern with all the focus on standardized testing (aside from the stigma that adheres to schools and students who regularly don’t achieve the rank of “proficient”), is the presumption that because we are providing standardized tests to capture the progress of said schools/students, then those students must be engaging in standardized learning. This is simply not the case.

Whether students are learning differently due to their own genetic variations in learning styles (nature) or because of the environment in which they are raised (nurture), or more likely a combination of the two, it is ridiculous to assume that the basic learning experience (for nearly 50 million students nationwide) will be standard. Moreover, the environments in which these children grow up and the learning communities that are charged with educating them are vastly different in social, economic, and physical makeup. This is true across all sectors, be it nationwide, state-wide and even district-wide.

By assuming to know what a student should be able to learn, we are providing a kind of default setting for achievement. This means the aspiring cyber security analyst may not receive work that is challenging her mental acumen in the appropriate areas and the future aircraft mechanic is taking courses in algebra II or chemistry when they would be better served learning about the mechanical workings of Boeing’s 777X flight controls. And for the student who has no idea what direction he is heading, then a curriculum that provides a well-rounded and integrated course of instruction (core subjects as well as arts, languages, and skills based classes) would be most appropriate. We must remember that as quickly as technology advances, so too will new jobs be created. Attempting to teach kids by the old method of rote memorization is fine for multiplication tables; but the jobs of the future will require far more in the way of creative thought processes. Standardized tests cannot hope to capture the complexity of the creative thinking of a 15 year-old student.

To be clear, I am not arguing against standards, just the idea that a 1-size-fits-all standard is not serving the majority of our students. Moreover, education is NOT a business, students are NOT inputs, and student success CANNOT be determined with standard output, e.g. test scores.

Standards and standardization have their place in education and elsewhere. I contemplate how crazy life would be if we didn’t have the advantages of standardization everywhere we look. The standard Polo shirt, standard pick-up truck, standard bank system, standard political candidates, standard grilled cheese, & even standard metronomes for our standard musicians to incorporate into the Standards. But really, do we believe that a standard serves to provide the best take on any given product or entity?

Providing standards (defined as “a level of quality, achievement, etc., that is considered acceptable or desirable” Merriam-Webster) is a way to communicate the lowest acceptable benchmark. But we know that having one benchmark doesn’t provide society with adequate options for anything: trucks, sandwiches, politicians, et al., so why should we believe that one standard for all students is an appropriate way to conduct learning? Having multiple standards for students that are interested in vastly different fields makes perfect sense. Engineers, nurses, and chefs have very few professional requirements that overlap. Hence the reason that education standards need to be updated to more accurately reflect the world into which our young adults enter; furthermore, the tests that attempt to measure progress need a total reconfiguration so as to provide meaningful assessment and feedback in realtime.

Yes, I took the ASVAB, a few Wisconsin mandated tests, and probably a couple more tests that millions of other students took; but I don’t recall a teacher ever telling me how important it was that I do well, doing my best was all that was asked. Nor do I recall ever spending an extra minute, let alone an extra hour, every day, to prep for the tests. I imagine my parents would have taken umbrage with such a waste of time in our educational day.

2 standard Jack-O-Lanterns
2 non-standard Jack-O-Lanterns

The current testing situation reminds me of a conversation that I’ve never heard, but could imagine taking place in the not-too-distant future, between two public school students (A.B. & C.D., seniors in high school we’ll say), at a standard pharmacy, in a standard suburb, concerning their standard day. And,  never having known anything but this madness of standardized testing, it might sound something like this.

A.B: Hey Man, what’s up?

C.D: Nothing Man, pretty standard day.

A.B: Tell me about it… (which didn’t really mean, “Tell me about it”, but having been conditioned to follow instructions exactly as they are read/heard, C.D. begins to tell A.B. about his standard day)

C.D: OK, so, I woke up at 7:05 and headed to the bathroom, it’s standard, 8’x5′, all the standard accessories, you know; took care of business and then got dressed in the standard threads my mom laid out for me, last night. I had a standard breakfast, 1 chocolatey chip eggo, 1 s’mores pop-tart, and a glass of juice that’s not really juice but it tastes like orange flavor, so whatever; then E.F. picked me up in his standard Toyota Camry, you know, the 2005 model that comes standard with cup holders, bucket seats, rear defrost, c.d. player, turn signals, which he only uses when Five-0 is behind him cuz a gear-head told him he could run out of blinker fluid if he used them too much…

A.B: Smart

C.D: …and it’s a manual, you know, standard transmission, it took E.F. like 10 months to learn how to drive that thing. Anyway, he had the standard jams on the stereo, “old skool” Beyonce´T-SwizzleThe Biebs, and one song that was totally not standard, he said it was in some drama thing his sister is doing, it kept talking about minutes and coffee and stuff, I didn’t get it. We talked about standard stuff: clothes, music, gym class, the girl who wears the standard jeans & v-neck sweater & always has her hair pulled back in a ponytail, which is so not standard, but it should be, I think, or not, I don’t know, and then we got to school, at our standard time, and met-up with G.H., I.J., & K.L, and talked about our standard night, you know, last night; we talked about sport-o practice, and non-sport-o practice, and our standard microwave dinner that tastes like—food, I guess, and about texting our bro’s & some chicks & I.J. said he was texting with the nerdy girl, the one that’s cute but totally not standard, wears Shell Toes, cat-eye glasses, I think she might have a tattoo on her ankle but it could just be a bug that’s always in the same spot, I don’t know, and our standard homework, math, english, science…I think I worked on something non-standard too, maybe it was something from social studies, yeah, Fred, No, Doug Fredrickson, or Douglas Freederman, I don’t know, something about the 4th of July…It’s Novemeber Dude, not July, JESUS! So non-standard, what’s that Dude thinking?

A.B: Um, yeah, ok Man, I didn’t really need to know step-by-step.

C.D: Oh, OK, so what about that party on Friday, after the football game, which we probably won’t win, you know, based on past performances, we’re so below proficient in football skills, it’s like the coaches aren’t spending enough time going over the standard plays.

A.B: Yeah, true.

C.D: Oh did I tell you about math class today?

A.B: Ummmm, no.

C.D: It was sweet, we went over the material for our next standardized test, all the information we’ll need to know so that we can score proficient. Those tests are So Boss! They hold us to such high standards and make sure we’re prepped for the ACT, SAT, H.S.E.E.s, & all that college-type stuff that we’re gonna be doing next year—in college. I can’t wait for college, all the standard courses, reading the standard texts, not having to think too much, you know, just keepin’ it real, preppin’ myself for that standard job I’ll get, out there in the big standardized world; Man, I love thinking about stuff like this, it’s so standard, not confusing, like art; what the hell was Ms. O.P. talkin’ about today, anyway. Something about Pick-asso and Africa, and the way that some artist dudes appropriated ideas but didn’t tell anybody and… I didn’t get it. Glad I won’t have to take any art classes in college.

A.B: Yeah Man, agreed; standards are totally awesome, why didn’t they have them when our parents were kids? They had it rough; my mom was tellin’ me about how they had to learn all kinds of different stuff, depending on what the teacher thought they should learn, how lame. How did they even get jobs?

C.D: I don’t know man, seems like they did what they wanted and didn’t worry about standards, weird. Oh, hey man, it’s Q.R.

Autumn colors
Autumn colors that exceed excellence, way above proficient

 

Of course we had standards before NCLB (both written and unwritten); but we, as students, didn’t know much, if anything, about them. We knew that we were supposed to be learning but we weren’t made to feel as though the future of the school depended on our ability to pass a test (because it didn’t). Our jobs were to learn the subject matter that was presented and if the class we were in had a quiz or a test, we did our best on it. In this way, we spent all of our time (or at least a good portion of it) learning about a wide variety of subjects.

At the end of the day, the one question that we need to answer is this: How does each individual student define success? This question should drive any new education policy. And don’t think this equates to a free-for-all in our schools. Students learn best when they are engaged/interested in the material that is being presented. Most students aren’t interested in math. And why would they be? It is rarely presented in a manner that equates to anything considered cool. Many kids associate math with being a math teacher, or a scientist, neither of which are appealing to the typical adolescent. But if we integrate math into a curriculum that relates to students’ areas of interest: music/arts, sports, health & wellness, design of all types, media (traditional print, t.v., radio, online) transportation, food and other service  industries, it is more likely that students will become proactive in the learning process. AND, we can focus more time on those areas that will truly be relevant to their future.

Side-bar: This idea definitely requires smaller class sizes, more teachers, more community volunteers, and more money. Those are all details that can be worked out.

The model of student/self directed learning (SDL) (or, my own variation, Individual Project Based Learning, (IPBL) which would be undertaken in the final two years of high school and be preceded by small team PBL (8th-10th) and whole group/small group PBL (K-7th)), is not spreading like wild-fire—yet. SDL is however, being explored and it has advocates around the country. These models have the potential to completely reshape the learning environment. Additionally, they will allow the students to dictate what success looks like to them (which means they are more likely to be invested in the daily grind of achieving that success). Furthermore, this type of pedagogy has the potential to integrate the larger community into the school community. Business owners, employees, and retirees from myriad sectors could act as champions for, and mentors to, the students. In these ways (smaller class sizes and community interaction with the schools/students) relationships can be built and enriched and the social fabric of the community will have an opportunity to expand while strengthening the ties that bind.

Collecting test scores and compiling the data for analysis in any number of multivariate regressions does not help the student determine what success looks like for her. By imposing a definition that does not align with the student’s vision for the future, we are telling them that THEY, the student’s, are not the most important piece of the education equation. They are simply here to provide data for the adults to analyze. Then, post analysis, some new plan will be hatched, money will be spent on the materials and the training, and “we” will try yet again to increase the number of proficient students and close the “all-important” achievement gap.

That policy has been tried too many times, It Is Tired, and everyone is tired of it (except the corporations that are reaping the financial rewards). We need to think in new ways; the way that George Pullman did when thinking about how to save Chicago or the way Mary Wollstonecraft thought about Women’s Rights, we need an entirely new blueprint that can fit within the basic parameters of public ed. The educational system needs to do a better job of thinking about why It exists; it is not to employ adults who are wanting to work in education circles (amazing as they are & necessary though they may be), nor does it exist as a location in which we warehouse youngsters until they are old enough to go out and earn a living; but rather, our education policies must be student-centric.

Students, as we know, will be in charge of moving our nation and economy forward in the coming decades. Let’s prepare them to be successful in the ways that they see their future selves achieving success; because the number of jobs that require filling in bubbles on a scantron are about the same number that hire people to soak up U.V. rays. Moreover, by equipping them with the skills, cognitive, and all the rest, that will serve them best, we will be doing our part to promote the common good and guide our nation into the 22nd century.

 

Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi
Platteville Limestone along the Mississippi, non-standard color combination in natural setting

 

 

The State of Education

We often hear people say that “the schools are broken” or the system has failed, or some other negative comment which is usually meant to cast aspersions on those schools having the most difficult time turning out “high achieving” students. Districts with classrooms bursting at the seams, dilapidated buildings in need of an extreme makeover that would baffle Ty Pennington, and a budget that had to cut all of the arts & music programs, are examples of the most visible needs at these schools. Add to that list a full-time nurse being cut to part-time (because we all know that students only get sick or injured on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings), and sports programs and other extracurriculars that are bare-boned and funded through private donations, athletic fees, and whatever money the district hasn’t spent on the basics. Several of the schools that fit this mold have been featured in books by Jonathan Kozol and others.

Conversely, we occasionally hear that people are very happy with the school district their child attends. Their school has a high graduation rate, most students score ‘proficient’ or above on standardized tests, and they experience no shortage of funds for the band, the football team, and the swimming & diving squad. The high schools in these districts often make Newsweek’s list of “Best High Schools” and they are just as good, if not better, than many of the private schools in their area.

The truth is, both of these scenarios are examples of some of our nation’s school districts. But many more districts fall somewhere in-between, and are not often featured in magazines or books. They serve a wide variety of students who come from a wide variety of cultures/backgrounds and fall all along the socio-economic spectrum. These districts produce world-class scientists, authors, athletes, civic and business leaders. They also see students who are unable to complete the K-12 system, some of whom become homeless and highly mobile, and other students who have difficulty functioning in society. This is what our typical school district looks like. It is not one extreme or the other, rather somewhere in between and always hopeful that with the next new program, they can alleviate some ill that is preventing their school from making the “Best” list.  Our educational system is not, on the whole, broken. But neither is it in prime condition. Major systemic overhauls are needed.

Many districts are in need of fixes in one or two or seventeen areas. Those fixes, the majority of the time, require funding. This does not always imply new funding; some cases require money to be shifted from a program that isn’t working to a new program that has exhibited promise elsewhere. But more often, it does require additional expenditures. This, financing, is often the area where policy matters get hung up (whether it’s education policy or anything else).

As we’ve recently witnessed in Maryland and Minnesota, deciding which programs are funded, and how the state decides to spend its tax revenues, is highly controversial. Governor Hogan (R-MD) made the choices that he, and some of his constituents, believe to be right. While other Maryland citizens, especially those engaged in the profession of educating children, disagree. Not every district in Maryland is in dire need of additional funding, but there are districts that could benefit greatly from extra funds.

Sometimes funding is necessary to upgrade infrastructure or some other tangible feature. But more often, funds are required to provide those things that are not as easy to put a price on. Professional development is one area that schools can choose to cut back on, if they are experiencing a budget shortfall. This may seem like a fairly inconsequential cut but imagine the auto mechanic who is asked to work on new cars, using new technology, and never receiving any instruction about the new automobile features or how the technology works. Providing ongoing professional development is the best way to keep teachers up to speed with the ever-changing world, which means their students will have the opportunity to keep pace with their peers in surrounding districts.

Another area that is often overlooked, until it’s out of control, is class size. Somewhere in the history of education, a consensus was developed about how many students should constitute a typical class size . It is pretty standard for 20-25 students to be in a class, in the typical elementary classroom, and a few more in the typical middle school and high school class. This has worked fairly well for many students—not all. The problem is not the average class-size in the typical school. The problem is when budgets are cut and class-sizes explode, and teachers are told that they have to deal with it, just like any other professional would. The problem is two-fold; many teachers will do what they have to do to make it work, which means they’re putting in more hours outside of school while making the same wage. Meanwhile the students, the BIG losers here, get less attention, fewer questions answered, and more competition for the same amount of resources. And if we look at which schools have the most overcrowded classrooms, we find the majority of them to be in inner-cities.

Which brings me to the issue that many people in education circles don’t talk about. An overcrowded classroom in the inner-city of Minneapolis, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or any other large American city is very different from an overcrowded classroom anywhere else. Inner-city schools, on average, have more students growing up in adverse conditions, than schools in suburban and rural areas (and for clarification, urban does not always equate to inner-city but all inner-city schools are within urban locales). Children growing up in inner-cities are more likely to experience poverty and violence (Thompson, 2014) and this makes learning more difficult, especially in overcrowded classrooms.

If we want to make one major policy change that will have the greatest effect on closing the achievement gap (something that I’ll get into more in another post), reducing class sizes in inner-city schools would be that change; in my opinion, and a host of others (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2011). It’s true that reducing class sizes from 20+ to 10-12, or 35+ to 15-18, would cost a lot of money. But if we think about the amount of money we are currently spending on those former students who didn’t get a quality education (not for lack of valiant attempts by the teachers) we can’t afford to not make the investment.

Class size reduction is not necessary for every student to be successful; but if we are truly interested in providing every student with the opportunity to achieve the “American Dream” (assuming it can still be achieved by the average Joe or Jane), then we owe the students that are growing up under the most difficult circumstances access to more tools so that they might achieve results similar to those outcomes the more advantaged students are attaining.

The state of education is not all bad. Millions of great people wake up everyday and set out to change the world by inspiring young minds. They don’t do it for the money or the fame (shocking, I know), they do it because they care about their students. By providing these teachers and schools with the resources they need to perform their jobs at the highest level, we can make our economy more stable and our society more equitable. Both of which are relatively important for a nation’s long-term viability.

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Take time to stop and notice what’s not directly in front of you, like wild flowers.
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Education is not only a human endeavor.