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.

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 Way It Is: Recalling the Verse of Tupac Shakur

In 2015 the United States has witnessed a resurgence of the Civil Rights Movement (#CRM). 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (#CRA’64) and Voting Rights Act of 1965 (#VRA’65), African Americans are still facing discrimination in the workplace, schools, financial institutions, housingcivic engagement, and via policing efforts within their community. While much of the anti-minority behaviors are now covert and institutionalized, the overt epithets persist. Furthermore, the support of political candidates who are opposed to affirmative action and equitable opportunities is wide-spread; and supporters of these figures wear their disdain for People of Color like a a badge of courage—a badge in the form of a Rebel Flag or Ann Coulter bumper sticker.

While no-one should argue the fact that progress in relations have been made, we should not fall into the trap of believing that the election (twice) of an African American President and numerous Black Mayors, Police Chiefs, and political figures at all levels of government, portends equal treatment of Black & White. Nor can we pretend that all of the policies instituted to combat the issues created by centuries of segregation and faulty beliefs have worked exactly as planned. Rather, it is reasonable to believe that relations have deteriorated from the “high point” of the late 1970s/early 1980s. And while 1975-’85 was not all-together a portrait of peace, love, and unity, comparatively, the country had made substantial progress from just a decade prior.

I see no changes. All I see is racist faces.
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under.
I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…
let’s erase the wasted.
Take the evil out the people, they’ll be acting right.
‘Cause both black and white are smokin’ crack tonight.
And only time we chill is when we kill each other.
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.
And although it seems heaven sent,
we ain’t ready to see a black President,
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact…
the penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.

The reasons for this phenomenon, the revitalization of The Movement, are likely many and varied, but at or near the top of the list must be the reawakening of people everywhere—for all of the obvious reasons: police brutality, discrimination in lending, housing, and educational opportunities, wage disparities & the widening of the income/wealth gap, and an enormous imbalance in economic opportunity based almost entirely on one’s home address. There is a growing realization that without pulling back the shades and exposing the truth of our country’s deep-seated difficulties in talking about this mythical creation of “race”, and everything that word entails, we will not be able to move forward and progress in a manner that provides Equitable Opportunities, Access, and JusticeFor All.

Tupac Shakur, one of our nation’s most celebrated and important musicians (and by all accounts, controversial),wrote a lot of music that challenged society’s wide-held belief’s about impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. In his song #Changes (originally recorded in 1992 with a remix released in 1998), Tupac dove into a number of these matters, providing the impetus for some young scholars, many of whom were not from neighborhoods resembling Nickerson Garden (Watts-L.A.), Hunts Point (The Bronx-NYC), or the Henry Horner Homes (Near West Side-Chicago), to dig deeper into what was really going on in The Other America. By exposing the lived experiences of these communities, to outsiders, Tupac, and other musicians, helped educate large numbers of Generation X (and some Baby Boomers and now Millennials), about the blurring of lines. The realization that life was not black and white—but rather a million shades of grey; and the differences between what was portrayed on the nightly news, on the printed page, and in the perceptions held by many Americans, versus, what was actually going on, spurred new research and outreach programs from coast-to-coast.

And still I see no changes. Can’t a brother get a little peace?
There’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do.
But now I’m back with the facts givin’ ’em back to you.
Don’t let ’em jack you up, back you up, crack you up and pimp smack you up.

For all of the time and energy that have gone into the research and programs that aspire to alleviate the difficulties found in America’s urban cores: high rates of homelessness and mobility, the decreased tax bases as corporations and wealthier White families fled for the suburbs, the lack of decent jobs, the influx of drugs and all that accompanies that scene, and the continued lack of investment in the future e.g. schools, youth programming, internships and apprenticeships, the struggles continue.

But some things will never change.
Try to show another way, but they stayin’ in the dope game.
Now tell me what’s a mother to do?
Bein’ real don’t appeal to the brother in you.
You gotta operate the easy way.
“I made a G today” But you made it in a sleazy way.
Sellin’ crack to the kids. “I gotta get paid,”
Well hey, well that’s the way it is.

Another common refrain in Tupac’s music concerns police brutality and the long history as it plays out in the African American community. It didn’t start with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Nor was it new in the instances of Rodney King, Michael Stewart, or Johnny Robinson. Murder, lynching, beating, and harassment of African Americans (and Africans, prior to the 1807 act banning the Slave Trade) began long before the U.S. of A. was a nation, and, it predates, if only briefly, the early police forces.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett attempted to put an end to the practice of mob justice via lynching (often known about by local law enforcement if not fully supported and aided by it) by making a public account, The Red Record, for the country’s populace to read. Wells-Barnett’s work should be credited with bringing about  Changes in the way our justice system handled alleged allegations, but we have not yet eradicated improper use of force from policing or neighborhood associations.

I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself,
“Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?”
I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black.
My stomach hurts, so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch.
Cops give a damn about a negro? Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare.

Our society has made progress, but how much depends a great deal on the view from your front stoop…and which “America” you live in. The biggest issues cannot be fixed with a policy, they require people to stop and think about the way they are treating other human beings, and then decide they want to Change. That said, there are policies, specifically fiscal, that could go a long way to leveling the playing field. Investing more, A LOT MORE, in public schools would be a good start. Providing inner-city schools with the funding to secure wrap-around services, similar to those that are currently being used by many of our Nation’s Promise Neighborhoods, would be a good first step.

Organizations such as the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, Partners for Education: Berea College (KY), and the Chula Vista Promise Neighborhood (CA), are providing a helping hand to members of local communities who need a little assistance getting things moving in the right direction. From health care and nutrition, to tutoring, to adult education classes, these programs give people not only hope, but also the skills to make sure the Changes they undergo, last.

Second, we could ask Congress to pass H.R. 40Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (Ta’Nehisi Coates made a great argument supporting reparations). This could serve as the catalyst to provide investment in both urban and rural communities where investment in schools, businesses, and public spaces/programs would help revitalize neighborhoods and lives. And third, the government could provide incentives to small and medium size businesses to bring jobs, Good Paying Jobs, to our city centers. This form of economic investment could pay dividends that have far-reaching effects, in terms of stability in housing, raising the tax base for school funding, and providing individuals & families a reason to reengage with the democratic process.

This may sound like a lot, but really, considering the alternative, the status quo, or even deteriorating relations and continued disinvestment in our country—our cities—our communities, it seems like a pretty good idea to make the necessary policy Changes to put us on a path that begins the healing process and thinks long-term about our Nation’s future well-being.

 

 

Rising Sun between the Brooklyn Bridge & the Manhattan Bridge
Rising Sun between the Brooklyn Bridge & the Manhattan Bridge

 

Manhattan Institute put out a Civic Report on New York City’s Poorest Neighborhoods. (2014)

Changes

Come on come on
I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself,
“Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?”
I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black.
My stomach hurts, so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch.
Cops give a damn about a negro? Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare.
First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers.
Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other.
“It’s time to fight back”, that’s what Huey said.
2 shots in the dark now Huey’s dead.
I got love for my brother, but we can never go nowhere
unless we share with each other. We gotta start makin’ changes.
Learn to see me as a brother ‘stead of 2 distant strangers.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
How can the Devil take a brother if he’s close to me?
I’d love to go back to when we played as kids
but things changed, and that’s the way it is
Come on come on
That’s just the way it is
Things’ll never be the same
That’s just the way it is
aww yeah
I see no changes. All I see is racist faces.
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under.
I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…
let’s erase the wasted.
Take the evil out the people, they’ll be acting right.
‘Cause both black and white are smokin’ crack tonight.
And only time we chill is when we kill each other.
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.
And although it seems heaven sent,
we ain’t ready to see a black President, uhh.
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact…
the penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.
But some things will never change.
Try to show another way, but they stayin’ in the dope game.
Now tell me what’s a mother to do?
Bein’ real don’t appeal to the brother in you.
You gotta operate the easy way.
“I made a G today” But you made it in a sleazy way.
Sellin’ crack to the kids. “I gotta get paid,”
Well hey, well that’s the way it is.
We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
what we gotta do, to survive.
And still I see no changes. Can’t a brother get a little peace?
There’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do.
But now I’m back with the facts givin’ ’em back to you.
Don’t let ’em jack you up, back you up, crack you up and pimp smack you up.
You gotta learn to hold ya own.
They get jealous when they see ya with ya mobile phone.
But tell the cops they can’t touch this.
I don’t trust this, when they try to rush I bust this.
That’s the sound of my tool. You say it ain’t cool, but mama didn’t raise no fool.
And as long as I stay black, I gotta stay strapped and I never get to lay back.
‘Cause I always got to worry ’bout the payback.
Some buck that I roughed up way back… comin’ back after all these years.
Rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat. That’s the way it is. uhh
Some things will never change

Tupac – Do For Love; I Ain’t Mad At Cha

Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, sheds light on the lives of African Americans’ journeys out of the Jim Crow South, to the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. Superb! Pack a lunch, it’s a long read but worth every minute of your time.

Tanner Colby has written a great book about how we (as a society) have come to be in the place we are. Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in AmericaEspecially good for anyone familiar with life in Alabama, Louisiana, K.C. MO & K.C. K., and NYC. But, really, just read it. You’ll Love it!

 

New Orleans: Where It’s At & Where it Could Be—10 Years On.

NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites
NOLA & Gulf Coast Favorites

The city of New Orleans was established by the French, in 1718. 45 years later, the Spanish had taken over the city, and the rest of the Louisiana Territory (by way of the Treaty of Fontainebleau). And then, 40 years after that, the Spanish allied themselves with France, and returned the Territory to the French, allowing Napoleon to sell the reacquired land to the United States (1803); and for about .04¢ an acre, President Jefferson scored the city that would become one of America’s greatest cultural icons.

202 years, and many tropical depressions, hurricanes and other weather related events, later, the Crescent City was pummeled by Katrina. Since official record keeping began, Hurricane Katrina (to include floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain via the compromised levees) has been the most destructive storm to hit the Gulf Coast. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was responsible for more lives lost, and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 was more intense, but in sheer devastation of land, buildings, economic loss, and displacement of people, Katrina stands alone.

It should be noted that while Hurricane Katrina was ultimately responsible for producing the weather conditions that caused the levees to fail, the failure of those levees is seen by many as a man-made disaster that exacerbated the naturally occurring disaster that was a storm of epic proportion.

The word “unbelievable” is one that I almost never use, mainly because it’s not applicable. In the aftermath of Katrina, however, I seem to find the word “unbelievable” most apropos when describing the failures of the local, state, and federal, government response. Considering the technology that was available, the wealth of resources our nation (and our allies) had to offer, advanced logistical capabilities, and the extending of hands from tens of thousands of people, one would think that the situations that occurred in the Superdome, with policing issues, foreign aid, FEMA, and displaced citizens, would have been avoidable, but alas, they weren’t. From President Bush lying about “[nobody] anticipat[ing] the “breach of the levees” to Mayor Nagin failing to order a mandatory evacuation of the city, the dereliction of duty was seemingly in every public office; from NOLA’s Central Business District to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, the entire post-hurricane SNAFU was, and still is, UNBELIEVABLE!

But let us not dwell on the past, too much. Instead, let’s think about where NOLA is and where it could be. 10 years is, relatively speaking, a long time in a young person’s life. Most children born in 2005 will be going into the 4th or 5th grade this fall. They are more than 1/3 of the way through their K-12 education. While those who were in 1st or 2nd grade will likely be Juniors or Seniors in high school. And, in New Orleans, that means charter schools, for the most part.

New Orleans Public School system is now (since the 2004-05 school year) an amalgamation of “regular” public schools (operated by Orleans Public School Board (OPSB)) and public charters (managed by the Recovery School Board (RSB) or the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)). As of the 2013-14 school year, a total of 44 Boards of Education were operating 87 schools in New Orleans; 30 of those schools were operating as Independent Charter Schools and are overseen by the (BESE). As The Cowen Institute-Tulane University points out in their annual report, this number of boards, each with its own policies and procedures, does not lend itself to equitable opportunities or equal treatment of students. Nor does it make good sense fiscally.

The students of these schools are not vastly different from students in other large metropolitan school districts, with a couple of exceptions—they are dealing with the traumatic effects of at least one life altering event (for many students, the number is higher) and they are guinea pigs for a post-Katrina education governance system. They have their struggles and successes in and out of the classroom and they are engaged in social media, sports, and music, as well as debate, chess, and theatre. But they also have a district with 92% of students attending charter schools (which have varied track records, just like public schools, but with less stability) and are more likely to have undergone severe stress due to Katrina and the events that occurred in their everyday lives, after the waters receded.

For the past 10 years, New Orleans’ citizens have been trying to get back to some semblance of “normal”. To say its been a tough road would be akin to saying, getting hit in the face with a tire iron might sting a bit. These kid’s lives have been turned upside down, sideways, and inside out; and the adults have experienced just as much chaos but with even more responsibilities i.e. stressors. Events like those that were brought on by Katrina and the ensuing failure of the levees and multiple government entities are enough to make the strongest people break.

Sadly, that wasn’t the only trouble the Gulf Coast would experience in a relatively short time frame. Adding a financial meltdown that started in late 2007, and turned into the Great Recession, heaps trouble on top of difficulty. The impact was, according to some economists, less severe in a Gulf Coast that was just starting to recover. However, with billions of dollars of aid being pumped into specific sectors for rebuilding, outside groups bringing in manpower and putting money into a few areas in the regional economy, and many citizens still not back home, it may mask the true impact of the recession on the locals. Either way, it definitely had an effect on the local industries which had to, post 2005, repair or replace physical facilities (and boats), hire and train new employees, deal with insurance companies and government personnel, and do it all while trying to manage the stress brought on by the initial act and compounded by the secondary and tertiary issues that followed. Then, as if a National Recession wasn’t bad enough, B.P. had to bring international pain to the Gulf.

The 2010 oil spill (TransOcean/BP) that killed 11 rig workers, lasted 87 days (and then some), and pumped about 5 million barrels of oil into the lifeblood of two major industries (fishing and tourism), was the blow that could have sealed the fate of the great cultural entity that is NOLA. And truthfully, New Orleans, and the greater Gulf Coast region, affected by: 1) government malfeasance; 2) the Army Corps of Engineers; and 3) Katrina; have struggled to make it back; many have likely been hanging on by a very thin thread. But don’t “misunderestimate” them; they will not give up, they will not quit.

And this includes the young people. THEY ARE TOUGH! Mentally, Emotionally, and Physically; much tougher than any child should have to be. But that is the hand they were dealt, and they are, All In. The future of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is secure, if not quite certain of where It will be in 50 years. The policies that are implemented, and the people crafting those policies, will play an important role in determining what that future looks like.

A lot of policies have been implemented in the post-Katrina era. Many have not had adequate time to be judged, others are failing to one degree or another, and some have had success, if limited. And this is good. If no new policies had been tried, it would have been a sign that the people were giving up. So long as the political affairs continue, imperfect though they may be, the community will survive and eventually, if not quite yet, thrive.

Three major catastrophes in five years would be too much for many cities. But yet, there it is, NOLA! The City that Care Forgot. The people who brought us so much of what is central to many of our everyday lives. Who Dat think they gonna wreck The Big Easy. Resilience, Tenacity, and Fortitude, are key characteristics of a 26.3er; so too are they abundant elements throughout Southeast Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. They endured decades of the “Aints“, the loss of the Jazz (now in Utah, that’s still weird), and gators the size of an AMC Pacer. They don’t scare easy and they’re in it for the long haul.

So when people would say, in the months and years proceeding late August of 2005: “why should ‘we’ rebuild a city that sits below sea level?”, I’d reply, “Because in addition to Mardi Gras, Sazeracs, and Southern Hospitality, NOLA has provided us with 3 iconic pieces of what it means to be ‘American’ (regardless of whether or not you enjoy any of the three): Jazz music, Creole cooking, and Truman Capote. To not rebuild New Orleans would be like the Polish not rebuilding Warsaw; or Japan not rebuilding Tokyo; and our nation, on 26 August 1814, saying, “eh, it’s just our Capital, let’s not worry about it”. Without New Orleans, America would be just another superpower with a bunch of Nukes, a wealth of world-class cheese and beer, and a long list of World Champions who never played a team from beyond our shores (and Toronto’s Jays and Raptors rosters are largely staffed by guys from the country that lies just South of Canada) .

So here we are, 10 years later. New Orleans and Coastal Louisiana, as well as parts of Mississippi’s and Alabama’s Gulf Coast are still rebuilding, still renewing, still rehabbing—lives, physical structures, and the many interconnected pieces of the larger Gulf Coast community. It is hard to imagine what life was like for the residents of this region over the past 10 years. But we know it was hard for all and exceedingly difficult for a good many. And we also know they are coming back, one step at a time. So if you have the means, and you’re not opposed to having “Too Much Fun“, head on down to The Crescent City and Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler.

Here are a few additional links to some music, articles, and information relating to New Orleans and this story.

Rebirth Brass Band: Move Your Body-The Funky Biscuit

Hot 8 Brass Band: Sexual Healing

The Atlantic: The Big Comeback     By: Derek Thompson

Los Angeles Times: Recalling Days of Despair in the Superdome    By: Kim Murphy

The New Orleans Advocate: 10 Years Later

Preservation Hall Brass Band: Iko Iko

Terence Blanchard: Levees—–From: A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).

Kermit Ruffins: Drop Me Off In New Orleans

The Animals: House of the Rising Sun

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts—–A Spike Lee Documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the entire hot mess of government disfunction.

Treme: HBO Series – Produced by David Simon & Eric Overmyer—-Great series that gives one a taste of New Orleans amazing music scene and what life was like in New Orleans after Katrina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.