Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Little Things Speak Loudly

It may seem churlish to criticize a children’s movie—and one coming out at Christmas, no less—for its political stance—but our cultural products do speak volumes about us and the way we see the world. I took my children to see the remake of “Annie” over the New Year’s weekend, and apart from aesthetic criticisms (of which I definitely had a few), I found its point of view about wealth and the social contract very interesting. I’m going to make reference to particular plot points below, so if you fear spoilers, leave now.

Several reviewers have already pointed out that the original Daddy Warbucks character, as envisioned by cartoonist Harold Gray, was a hardcore, free-market capitalist who often voiced his opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the social policies of the New Deal. Viewers whose knowledge of Little Orphan Annie comes solely from the Broadway musical of the 1970s and the subsequent movie versions may find this surprising, as Warbucks evolved (or mutated) to have a close relationship and alliance with Roosevelt—politics and private industry working hand-in-hand to help the poor. That was definitely not Gray’s vision. His Warbucks believed that the wealthy’s responsibility to society was to simply provide jobs to people.

The newest take on the role, played by Jaime Foxx and now called William Stacks, has much more in common with the original Warbucks than with his later, more liberalized version. He is a cell phone magnate whose single interest is in growing his business. He’s running for mayor of New York City but doesn’t seem to have any platform or agenda beyond increasing his own visibility to help his company broaden its reach.  Early in the film, you might say to yourself (as I did), “What a perfect set-up for what’s coming. He’ll come in contact with Annie, learn about the suffering of others, and discover his true mission in life.” In fact, his lack of actual platform is mentioned so many times, early in the film, that it seemed clear to me that this is where the movie was headed. Add to that his discovery that Annie is illiterate, and that many children in the city fall through the cracks and get passed along in school without learning what they need to learn, and the stage is set perfectly. Stacks will start to think about his relationship and responsibility to the society around him. He’ll become the Education Candidate. He’ll make that his political mission, and that is what will lead him to electoral victory.

Except that’s not what happens. Not at all. Stacks does learn a lesson about selfishness and love, but it leads him to drop out of the race entirely, and let the diehard liberal candidate (amusingly named after the original cartoonist) take the election. Stacks does come out of the story caring about children’s literacy, and it leads him to open a children’s literacy center (although this only happens in the closing credits; up till then, his focus is solely on helping Annie). So he’s a good guy, and he uses some of his money to help others. He’s a good guy in the way the Koch brothers are good guys: if you leapfrog over how they make their money and don’t question why some people should have quite so much money while other have nothing, then you have to acknowledge that they spend some of their money philanthropically, and good for them for doing so. It’s the liberal politician’s job to deal with social policy; the rich man goes back to making money.

What’s interesting is that the underlying system is NEVER questioned, even for a second. Will Stacks is a billionaire because he works hard. He even gets a nice song about making the most of his opportunities. But Annie and the other foster kids live in abusive squalor…why? No reason is given, beyond the fact that their particular foster mother is a selfish wreck. Personal responsibility and accountability are great things to focus on, and they cross the political aisle (though conservatives like to pretend that liberals don’t care about personal responsibility), but they’re not the full story. Why is the foster care system underfunded? Why are the office bureaucrats dour and grim and unhelpful (until one of them gets to rub up against Great Wealth, after which she becomes charming)? How is a bright child like Annie allowed to move through school without learning how to read? The screenwriters go the trouble of pointing out that Annie isn’t alone—that there are many kids who suffer the same problem—but it doesn’t focus any attention on the systemic problems that lead to this result, or suggest that there are structural problems that lead to this result, or suggest that there may be other ways of structuring things. All they offer is the rich man riding in on the white horse to save the day. Thank god there’s a rich guy who can fund a literacy center to make up for our shitty schools, they say. What isn’t said, but is definitely implied, is that shitty schools are just a fact of life…for some people. The poor you will always have with you. And in a world where nothing is causative beyond personal responsibility, or its lack, the other thing that’s implied is that anyone who is poor has only themselves to blame for it. They didn’t make the most of their opportunities, like Will Stacks did.

The message throughout seems to be that society must depend on the wealthy for pretty much everything—not only for jobs, but also for whatever assistance is needed to better our lives. So thank God for the rich. They do not have any responsibility to fix the system—to make it more equitable, to make it more functional. They do not have any responsibility to limit what they take, to make sure others have what they need. Each person is a free agent, and each person is 100% responsible for his or her life circumstances. There is nothing else at play, holding people back or limiting their opportunities. Therefore, the only responsibility of the rich man is to get rich and stay rich, so that they can “save” whatever they deem worthy of saving, out of the goodness of their hearts. They are the lords and the rest of us are serfs, and you’d better thank your lucky stars you have a lord on hand to take care of things.

I don’t mean to mock. This is a real political point of view, held by many people in this country—now and in times past. I think it’s surprising how clearly and internally consistently this point of view is illustrated and defended throughout the movie, especially considering how excessively liberal Hollywood is accused of being. The DVD of the movie ought to be every conservative’s favorite stocking-stuffer, next Christmas.

However, I do think it’s important to identify the point of view and see it for what it is. It’s very easy to take the happy ending as given, and swallow the happy medicine with the spoonful of sugar it’s delivered with. But I think it’s all right to think about it, too, and question it—to have a dialogue with the movie (as with any piece of art and culture). If we happen not to agree with its point of view, I think it’s right and proper to challenge it, especially with older children who are seeing the movie with us. Every movie creates a world, and every fictional world gives us the opportunity to learn something about the real world. We should make the most of our opportunities.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Which Side Are You On?

One of the saddest things I’ve seen during the recent horrors in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Brooklyn has been the speed with which people have been taking sides and accusing whoever disagrees with them of destroying America. Saner voices try to remind us that there are no sides—that we’re all in this together, and that we just need to understand each other and work things out. But the more I watch, the more I wonder if the first part of the statement is true. Maybe there are two sides to what’s going on, but in a different way than most people are thinking.

I used to love Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that the arc of the moral universe was long, but that it bent towards justice. I liked being reminded to take the long view, and I liked the sense of historical inevitability. But now I’m not so sure I buy it. I think the moral universe may actually be in a perpetual state of tug-of-war. We have within us the desire for justice and tolerance, the ability to make our communities more fair and peaceful. But we also have within us the desire to compete, to dominate, and to vanquish—and we’re definitely capable of ruling by force and separating ourselves from the weak and the defeated by walls and laws and armed guards. We can go either way, depending on the mood of the times. We can be ruled by hope and justice, or we can be ruled by fear and hatred. And one being ascendant, in any given period of time, doesn’t mean the other isn’t lying somewhere in our hearts, latent, ready to be re-born. This means that any ground we win in the battle for social justice is ground that can be lost. Just because we secure a victory in one generation doesn’t mean the problem has vanished. The problem is always there, under the surface, like a cancer that’s in remission but not gone.

I remember traveling in the Czech Republic in 1993 and seeing freshly-painted graffiti showing a Star of David with a gallows hanging from it—anti-Semitic hatred on display in a country that had barely known a Jew in 50 years. You could feel that weird, irrational, hatred under the surface, always—always looking for a reason to push back to the surface. Even here, it seems like there’s an instance every month of some idiot, somewhere, drawing swastikas into team logos, or creating shirts that look like concentration camp uniforms, or using some racial epithet or caricature to criticize the president, or calling a new vodka and stout cocktail, “Apartheid.” I don’t think it’s just thoughtlessness, or tactlessness, or historical amnesia. It’s nastier than that. It’s this ugly little, lizard brain voice saying, “Is it okay to hate them again, yet? Is it okay to put them in their place?” That voice needs to get beaten down whenever it whispers to us. We can’t ever assume we’re “beyond that.”

Likewise, I don’t think it’s just historical ignorance that drives some people toward wanting a repeat of the massive inequalities of the Gilded Age. It would be easy to think that millions of voters are simply dupes of power brokers like the Koch brothers, but I don’t think the reality is that easy, or that our fellow citizens are that stupid. No, I think it’s the pull of the tug-of-war—the message that life should be ferocious and competitive and brutal, because that’s all we deserve—a world where might makes right, and weakness deserves nothing but contempt. It’s that strange, visceral feeling of satisfaction when you get to respond to your own oppression by stepping on the neck of someone even lower on the ladder than you. It’s that weird, exhilarating feeling of relief when you decide you can give up trying be noble, because there’s no point in even trying. Camus talks about this in The Fall, when he describes the horror of having a drowning stranger call out to you for help—and the wonderful feeling of relief that comes when you find a way to talk yourself out of having to be responsible for saving his life.

It’s an abdication of responsibility that lies at the heart of all of this, I think. We can’t fix racism. We can’t fix poverty. We can’t change the world. So we decide who belongs inside and who belongs outside, we lock the door tight, and to hell with whoever is left out in the cold. Really—to hell with them. Fuck them. They’re not my problem.

I think we can see this at work in the way some people are responding to the new Senate report on torture. We see it the way people seem to be embracing the militarization of the police. Bad things are happening to some ill-defined them out there, but they’re not my problem. And the more that some people try to make the claim that those suffering people are our problem, the angrier the abdicators get. We don’t want to know. Do whatever you have to do to keep the peace—just leave me alone: that’s the new social contract.

There is something deeply disturbing about a free country so rapturously embracing images and ideas that smack of fascism—but it’s hardly new. Erich Fromm identified the strain back in 1941, in his book, Escape from Freedom. He saw that freedom and accountability could be terrifying and isolating for some people, and that authoritarianism had its comforts. Just because we’ve moved from feudalism to democracy doesn’t mean that democracy is a given. The desire to be ruled is still in our blood.

And maybe those are the real tugs-of-war we live with, day to day—the conflicts between the burdens of freedom and its gifts, and the dangers of authoritarianism and its gifts. When the drowning man calls to us in the nighttime and no one can see whether we act heroically or slink away…what will we do?

The fight ahead is not between the police union and the mayor. It’s not between minority citizens and white police officers. It’s not even between the 99% and the 1%. We are all in this together. We have to be in this together.  The real fight—the eternal fight—is against the cancer that’s always ready to wake up.  Camus (again) made it clear in The Plague that the disease is not neutral; when it wakes up, you always have to take a side. You’re either for the plague or against the plague. If you do nothing to fight it, then you’re for it.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Every System is Perfect

(originally published at


"A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect."    W.E.B. Du Bois

They say the political system in our country is broken because it produces nothing but partisan bickering and legislative gridlock. They say our tax system is broken because it demands too much (or too little) from Group X and spends too much (or too little) on Cause Z. They say our education system is broken because…well, for all sorts of reasons, depending on who’s talking. Educators are addicted to faddish reforms, or educators are hopelessly resistant to change. Whichever side you pick, the headline is the same: the system is broken.

We used to see ourselves as a country of engineers and tinkerers, mechanics and inventors, and yet we can’t seem to fix the systems we complain about. Why is that? Have we become hopelessly inept?  During World War II, we had the ever-resourceful, wisecracking rabbit, Bugs Bunny, as our cartoon icon. He could outsmart any foe and solve any problem. Now we have the hapless dunderdead, Homer Simpson. Does that really reflect who we have become?

I don’t think so. We are still a resourceful, inventive, curious nation, eager to try new things and tinker with the old. I think our problem is that we’re trying to fix things that aren’t technically broken. Our systems work fine. In fact, our systems are perfect.  

I know that sounds impossible. Allow me to explain.

What’s in a Name?

Some definitions of the word “system” include:

·         An assemblage or combination of things or parts forming a complex or unitary whole;

·         Any assemblage order of correlated members;

·         A coordinated body of methods or a scheme or plan of procedure; organizational scheme;

·         Any formulated, regular, or special method or plan of procedure

Common to all of these definitions is the idea of a coming-together of disparate parts or pieces into something sensible and whole. A system is not a random lump; the pieces are combined, correlated, coordinated, and arranged for some purpose. Whoever or whatever does the combining or coordinating has a plan in mind. A system is built to do something. That’s what makes it a system.

Our bodies are composed of a variety of systems which have developed over thousands of years. We have a skeletal system, a nervous system, a pulmonary system, a cardiovascular system, and a digestive system. Each is made up of different elements that work together to perform steps of a complex task. Genetic mutation and environmental pressure have shaped and changed these systems to do exactly what they currently do, for better or for worse.

We like to think that our human-created systems, like schools and governments, are born of more precise planning, engineering, and construction, but they have evolved over time, just like our biological systems. Sometimes, we may feel as though time and pressure have warped what we have built beyond recognition. But however clumsy and jerry-rigged our systems may appear to us, they do still perform a function. They lead to a particular result. And if they deliver that result in a consistent and reliable and predictable fashion, we can’t really call them broken. They work. They work quite well. They have become efficient machines for producing…whatever it is they produce.

Machines Define Themselves

Case in point: if our Congress is now a place where compromise has become impossible and compromisers have become unelectable, then Congress has clearly become a system that produces gridlock. That is what the machine does. If it produces gridlock in a consistent and reliable and predictable fashion, then it’s an efficient gridlock machine—maybe even a perfect one.

We claim we don’t want the gridlock and intransigence that Congress is mired in, but is that true? The environmental pressures that have mutated the system haven’t come from famine, or war, or an ice age. They’ve come from us. Everything we’ve done to tinker with this system over the years has deepened the inability for representatives to compromise with each other. We’ve done that. In my lifetime, we’ve gotten gridlock down to a science. If we don’t like the result, why have we adapted the machine to be so good at delivering it? Are we just stupid? Or are we not being honest with ourselves about what we want?

Sometimes our problems with systems don’t come from the evolutionary adaptations, but from the original designs. Our public school system has been changed and tinkered with relentlessly over the years, but the machine still adheres closely to the original blueprint. We often forget what the machine was meant to produce. Our schools were developed, based on a model imported from Prussia, to process immigrants into citizens and citizens into workers, to drive the new, industrial economy. Our school system was built to be our country’s E Pluribus Unum machine: take the Many and turn them into the One. Take the children of the loud, chaotic rabble and teach them how to sit still at a desk, all in a row, and speak only when called upon by the teacher. Free spirits, both real and fictional (hello, Tom Sawyer) have always identified school as the enemy of freedom, and they haven’t been completely wrong about that. Freedom was never the point of school. Induction into adult society—specifically the 19th and 20th century industrial economy—was the point. And it has delivered a fairly predictable, consistent product—so much so that a major issue of the Civil Rights Movement was ensuring that all children be allowed to participate in the system and emerge from it on a par with their peers, regardless of color.  

Now, we can complain that our schools don’t do enough to develop critical thinking, personal autonomy, and creative expression. We can complain that they don’t help teachers differentiate and personalize instruction to meet the individual needs of an increasingly diverse student body. We can complain that they should be laboratories of scientific innovation, or that they should focus on creation of authentic products rather than the mastery of standardized tests. We can even complain that the kinds of workers we need today require a different kind of processing machine. All of these things may be true and important and wonderful, but the complaints live firmly in the world of “should.”  Our schools, by and large, do not do these things, because that’s not what they were built to do.

Of course we get outliers from time to time—exceptional students, iconoclastic teachers, trailblazing schools. Every bell curve has its outliers. But the anomalies do not define the machine; the core product does. And the core product has been sameness for many years--well behaved, employable sameness. The machine has been quite effective at churning out that product. The problem is not that the system is broken. In fact, the system seems pretty indestructible.

Fixing the Washing Machine

So here is the challenge. We have to decide what we want, and then assess whether the system we have is the right system for delivering the end-product we desire. That’s what we need to do, but it’s not what we tend to do. We tend to start with the system that’s already in place, assuming it’s a permanent, necessary part of our lives. It’s always been there; it’s always going to be there. It’s inescapable. And so we try to wrangle and mangle the system into new shapes to meet our changing needs.

With some systems, that’s a sensible course of action. Some systems can accommodate change better than others. The United States Constitution has a built-in process for revision and updating, which is one of the reasons it continues to serve us. If Congress as it currently functions is not serving our needs, there are mechanisms for fixing it. We do not need to break it and create something different. All we need to do is agree on what we want. If that is more than we’re capable of doing, it’s a reflection on us, not the system. The system’s intransigence reflects our ambivalence.

That may be what’s happening in our public education system, as well. Perhaps it is wonderfully open to change, and we simply can’t agree on what we want to do with it. If that is the case, then our challenge is finding consensus…which would be a serious challenge, given our recent experience with adopting the Common Core State Standards.

But I think there’s another problem, beyond consensus. Some systems are just not well-designed for change, and when we try to monkey around with them, our adaptations can create more havoc than good. Even if we have universal agreement on how we want to change a system, we may find that the original, historical design is now so divorced from our needs that it can’t serve as a useful platform anymore. The base of the structure remains unchanged, but we tinker with everything built on top of it, until the entire structure becomes patchwork-y and unstable. And when the structure of “reform” finally collapses, it’s the solid base—the original design—that remains. You can’t change the top if you don’t change the bottom. That’s what I think is happening in our schools.

Here’s a perhaps-clumsy analogy. The washing machine is a simple and straightforward machine. We know what it’s good for, and what it can do. But if you need a dryer instead, do you take your washing machine apart and try to turn it into that dryer—something it was never meant to be and is ill-equipped to be? Or do you go out and buy what you need?  I think even Homer Simpson would know which choice was more logical.

It’s not rocket science. A system built to do X will always want to do X. It’s good at doing X. It’s happy doing X. The more you try to pull it away from its original function, the ricketier and more unstable it becomes. Sometimes, starting from scratch just makes more sense. Why spend your life fighting against something’s primary essence and definition?   

Is American public education becoming one of these monsters? I wonder. Can we take the traditional school house and school schedule, subdivided into discrete rooms and discrete class periods, each in a particular place, run by a particular teacher, designed for the particular purposes we discussed above, and transform it into a place of individualized and collaborative, project-based and mastery-based learning? We’re certainly trying our hardest. Sometimes we even succeed. But let’s be fair: it’s not what the system was built for, and there will always be a tension between what it was designed to do and what we’re trying to make it do. The way the school is built makes it easy to separate students and separate subjects and use class time to do one thing at a time, driven by the teacher who stands at the head of the room and performs for her audience. It is a perfect system for doing that. We can force it to do other things, but it’s always going to be a challenging. It’s always going to be an uncomfortable fit.  We will always—always—have to place ourselves between our reforms and the system’s original function, holding the reversion-to-form at bay with brute strength.

Rabbit Season

I don’t believe the only way to effect change is to live in that eternal tension—keeping systems from doing what they were designed to do. I think if you need a clothes dryer, you should go out and get a clothes dryer. And if the machine you need doesn’t exit, then maybe you should build one. Starting from scratch isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What if we could start from scratch? What if we could build a school that reliably, consistently, and predictably produced the kinds of young adults we say we need in the brave new world of the 21st Century?  What would such a place look like? How would it function? If we could (just for a moment) forget about the systems we’ve inherited, the buildings we’re stuck with, and the behaviors we assume are inevitable—if we could pretend that we were inventing the idea of School from Day 1—tabula rasa—what would we dream up?

Bugs Bunny used to stare down the barrel of a shotgun, stick his finger in the hole, and say, “What’s up, Doc?” And either his adversary pulled the trigger and had the gun blow up in his own face, or the sheer audacity of Bugs standing up to him made him stand down and lower his weapon. Bugs wasn’t just smarter than everyone around him. He was also courageous, optimistic, and—even when facing the shotgun barrel—good-humored. That’s why our fighter pilots used to paint his picture on their planes.

I say it’s time to start channeling Bugs again. I say it’s time to stop reacting to everything that’s wrong with a hopeless slap on the forehead and a Simpson-esque cry of, “D’oh!” What defined this country in its infancy was a refusal to accept the inheritance of history as inevitable—an insistence on re-looking, re-thinking, and re-forming all systems to create a truly new world. Whatever the problems before us, I believe we can figure out how to answer the question, “What would it take…?” But first we have to ask, “What if…?”



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting Off Autopilot: Ours is Definitely to Reason Why

(originally published at

A survey of helpful websites tells me that the opening sentence of a paper should be “attention grabbing” to “pique the interest of readers.” It also tells me that it’s my “big chance to be clever.” Sadly, I’m not feeling very clever today, so I’m going to rely on the cleverness of someone who came long before me.

As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  That may be a little extreme—I’m sure there must be some value in living totally in the moment, unburdened by reflection and self-doubt.  My cat seems to enjoy it. But thinking about our lives does give life some weight, some meaning. We were blessed (or cursed) with the ability to reflect, and as far as we can tell, we’re the only animals possessed of that gift (or burden). So we might as well put it to use.

Unfortunately, Socrates also said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” And I don’t believe he was a young man when he said it. So perhaps a lifetime of self-examination isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s a funny thing about knowledge. Often, when we learn something new, we crystallize the idea in a memorable and easily-repeatable format so that we can remember it, and so that we can bring out our little gem of wisdom and share it with friends. Unfortunately, nuggets of knowledge leave out a lot of nuance and complexity, and can end up leading to mis-understanding.  We may know the full meaning behind our words, but our listeners may have no idea what we’re trying to teach them. They’ll remember the catch-phrase, but they may not understand it. And after multiple re-tellings, we may even forget the meaning behind the words.

I think we are most guilty of this when we’re explaining rules and procedures to students. We want our charges to be able to remember basic facts and processes quickly and easily, so we give them short phrases—often in rhyme. For example:

“Ours is not to reason why; just invert and multiply!”

That’s how I was taught to divide fractions. That’s how a shockingly large number of Americans have been taught, and are still being taught. And why not? It’s effective; I can still do it, decades after first learning it. I don’t know why I’m supposed to invert and multiply, or why it works, or what it means, but my helpful little rhyme tells me not to worry about asking why. It’s not important for me to understand that a fraction is, itself, a little division problem—that ½ means “one divided by two.” It’s not important for me to remember that the relationship between multiplication and division mirrors the relationship between addition and subtraction. I don’t need to understand how numbers work; I just need to remember the rhyme and do as I’m told.  

I’m sorry to say that after an entire K-12 education in “just doing it,” I am now one of those adults who says he “doesn’t do math.” And this is criminal, because what is math, really? It’s just a language we use to solve problems in the world. God knows, we all have to solve problems, so we should probably all learn to be fluent in that language. I’m trying to get better, now, in my fifth decade of life. I shouldn’t have had to wait so long.

We’re in the middle of a battle, at the moment, between the authors and advocates of new standards that demand rigor and conceptual understanding in math instruction, and a variety of angry adults who want to know why their children are being asked to figure out nine different ways of solving simple math problems. It doesn’t take much investigative reporting into credit card debt, house foreclosures, or picture-based cash registers in fast food restaurants to figure out that adults in this country are, by and large, Bad At Math. But that doesn’t stop us from getting angry at anyone who dares to teach our children differently than we were taught. This is, I suppose, the legacy of learning nursery rhymes that tell us never to ask why.

Here’s another example of autopilot instruction from elementary mathematics…

“If you need to multiply by ten, just add a zero” 

It’s not a rhyme, but it’s memorable. Is it true?  Sure. If you want to multiply 237 by 10, all you have to do is add a zero at the end, giving you 2,370.  That works. Don’t ask why it works. Don’t worry your little heads about what it means. Just do it.

Unfortunately, the approach stops working after a while.  Decimals become a problem, because obviously, 2.37 x 10 is not 2.370.  Of course, you could learn another little rule about where to put your zero when you’re dealing with decimals. But at a certain point, it starts being counterproductive to add codicils and amendments to your nursery rhymes. You could just learn something about how numbers work, and then you wouldn’t have to worry any more.

I’m picking on math instruction, but teachers can go on autopilot in the humanities just as easily. How many times have you heard (or said) the following to explain the difference between a metaphor and a simile:

“A simile uses like or as”

All of my English teachers phrased the distinction that way, and I’m pretty sure I used the phrase myself, back in the day. And it’s accurate, as far as it goes. It’s a true statement. It’s just a useless one. It doesn’t teach you anything.

A simile uses like or as…but why? To do what?  That’s the part we seem to leave out. And it’s not an inconsequential part of the equation. A metaphor is a complete and unlimited comparison between two things. It says Thing 1 is Thing 2. A = B. Love is a rose. That guy eating pizza over there is a pig. Because the phrase puts no limit on the comparison, it implies that the comparison is total: love resembles a rose in all of its aspects and attributes. That guy eating pizza has every possible characteristic of a pig. A simile, on the other hand, precisely because it uses like or as, puts a limit on the comparison. If love is as fragile as a rose, then the resemblance is limited to that fragility. Love is neither red nor flowery nor thorny nor green-stemmed. And if it is thorny, well, then, “Love is as thorny and fragile as a rose.” How’s that?  And the guy eating pizza? Maybe he only eats like a pig.

Every time I explain this to someone who claims to have “never gotten poetry,” they thwack their forehead and say, “D’oh!” Which, incidentally, is exactly what I do when someone finally explains a math rule to me in language that makes sense.

Our autopilot parroting of rules isn’t limited to esoteric topics. Poetry is difficult. Outside of school, not everybody reads it or writes it. But how about simple paragraphs? Everyone has to write a paragraph, now and again. And what’s the rule that so many English teachers give their students to remember? 

“A paragraph has five sentences”

First of all, no it doesn’t. Not always. And second of all, if you think it has to, then why? Why five, exactly? What kind of sentences are they? Just five random sentences in any order, as long as there are five? We don’t define sentences by how many words they contain; why would we define paragraphs that way?  There are children in classrooms all over the country who are getting papers marked as incorrect, just because some novice teachers or aides are implementing a rule that they, themselves, don’t understand. A paragraph isn’t a numerical equation. It’s an elaborated or explained idea. A sentence states an idea, but a paragraph explains and illustrates and perhaps defends that idea. Once it has done its job sufficiently, the paragraph is done.

The Five Word Rule

Here’s one more rule I love:  If you encounter five unknown words on a page of a book you’re reading (again with the fives), you should stop reading the book, because it’s too difficult for you and it will only frustrate you.  We can call it the Five Word Rule. Yay! Simple to name, simple to remember, simple to apply. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense. I encounter words I don’t know all the time. That doesn’t stop me. The key to comprehension is ideas, not words. If I can get the gist of a sentence without knowing one particular, strange word, then I’m fine. If I can get close to the meaning of a word using context clues, so much the better. What I need is the idea contained in the sentence. If I get that, I’m understanding what I’m reading.  So if on a single page I encounter five sentences that I can’t make sense of, then I might be inclined to set the book aside. Because the sentence is what contains the idea that I need to understand. And if I’m missing five ideas on a single page, I’m not getting much out of the book. What the Five Word Rule teaches children is that they shouldn’t have to work to understand something. Why bother figuring out context clues? Why think through the meaning? Just count up to five and chuck the whole book. Go back to Dr. Seuss or something—something you already know how to read.  Treading water is fun.

I’m being a little harsh here, I know. There are teachers all over the country who are using the Five Word rule thoughtfully and carefully, and are teaching their students to work and grow and learn. In fact, there is probably nothing wrong with any of the rules I’ve picked on here, if they are used thoughtfully and purposefully. But that’s the whole problem. They’re not, far too often. When we fall back on easy rhymes and catch-phrases and use them in place of actual explanation and illustration—actual teaching—we’re in trouble. We’ve switched over to autopilot. And we need to catch ourselves, when we do that. We need to wake up, switch back to manual control, and drive our instruction.

Philosophy can be lovely and eloquent until you have to live by it. Saying that the unexamined life is not worth living puts quite a demand on us—any of us, regardless of our profession. It asks us to stop going through the motions and really listen to the things that come out of our mouths. It asks us to watch ourselves as if from across the room, and say, “Does that make sense, what I’m doing? Is that a good thing to do?”  It’s not a comfortable or a pleasant activity, but it’s a discipline we should all develop, even if it’s only once a year. It seems to me that as educators, we should be role models of examining actions and re-thinking positions. Just because we’ve said always something in a certain way or always taught some things in a certain order doesn’t make it right. Every once in a while, we need to stop, and think, and decide.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Accountability for Thee, But Not For Me

(originally published at


When I lived in Arizona, there was a controversial program wherein cameras were posted on key roadways to catch people speeding.  I got caught doing 50 MPH in a 40 MPH zone, and had to attend an online driving school to clear my record. I was mightily annoyed, because as far as I was concerned, I was driving safely. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who was irked. The Republican governor attacked the camera system as being an “invasive” holdover from her Democratic predecessor, and the program was shut down.

Accountability is a funny thing. We love it in the third person, but we often hate it in the first person.  We don’t need oversight and regulation; the rules are for those other people. We encounter this attitude all the time, from the grocery store checkout line to massive Wall Street banks. We want law and order, but we also want the freedom to do whatever we choose, because—well, darn it—we’re good people, aren’t we? Kind and thoughtful and wise?  Sure. You can trust us.

In general, we have no problem obeying rules we already agree with; it’s the rules we don’t like that we tend to violate. And how much we like a given rule may depend on all sorts of contingencies. The express line at the grocery store may be fine in theory; at least it’s fine on days when the store isn’t crowded and we’re not in a rush. But if we feel pressed for time, well…now it’s an inconvenience, and we’ll fight with the checker to let us go through with our 37 items. Unless there’s already another rule-breaker in that line, gumming up the works. Then we’ll curse that person for being selfish, and skulk back to where we belonged in the first place.

The Categorical Imperative

It would be lovely to think that we’re capable of restraining ourselves without outside authority or interference—that we can all be relied upon to do the right thing in all cases.  The Golden Rule has been around for a long time, after all, and we learn it at an early age. But obviously, if we all abided by that rule, people wouldn’t be hogging the express line with their 37 items.

Immanuel Kant said, back in the 18th century, that we should choose only those actions we’d be comfortable seeing implemented as a universal law. That’s the Golden Rule on steroids. If I feel it’s okay to speed whenever and wherever I want to, then I should be comfortable with everyone doing it.  And if that thought is unpalatable or frightening to me, then I shouldn’t be speeding, myself.  

But I do speed. The sad fact is that we can’t be depended upon to let logic rule over our baser instincts—not all the time. For good or ill, we need rules and laws to restrain our impulses and provide some external, objective standard to follow. And we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for living within those limitations.

In an organization like a business or a school, accountability isn’t just about living together in peace and harmony; it’s also about working together towards a common goal and getting things accomplished. The minute you move beyond doing everything yourself, you need some kind of accountability to ensure that important things get done. Without accountability, people end up stomping around the office, muttering, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” And who wants to be (or listen to) that guy?

Let Them Teach

Accountability—tricky in the business world—is even trickier in the world of education.  Who do we have to depend upon, and who depends on us? Are we accountable to our students or our principals, our parents or the local board of education, or are we only accountable to the state? In theory, it feels like “all of the above;” in practice, it sometimes ends up as, “none of the above.”

How many of us have responded to the endless parade of mandates and initiatives with external obedience but internal rebellion—going through the motions to keep up appearances, but then closing the door on the new “flavor of the month” initiative and doing whatever we feel is the right thing to do? How many of us have grimaced during principal walkthroughs, sure that our administrators don’t have enough understanding to pass judgment on our performance? How many of us have reacted to larger, state-level evaluation systems with even more scorn? How many Defenders of Teachers have responded to all of this with blog posts and tweets that say, “Leave them alone! Just let them teach!”

“Just let them teach” suggests that outside evaluation is unnecessary, burdensome, and perhaps even dangerous. It implies that only teachers can understand and assess their own day-to-day actions, because the job is too complex. We do not seem to say that this particular evaluation tool or process is flawed; we say (or at least we imply) that the entire idea of evaluating teacher performance is foolish.

But is that true? Are we educators so strange and unique that our work simply cannot be evaluated?  I mean, even the wizards-in-training at Hogwarts had to pass their O.W.L. exams. If their performance could be assessed, surely ours can.

Defining Accountability

In his book, Winning with Accountability, Henry J. Evans describes in detail what it means to hold yourself, and others, accountable—and why real accountability is crucial for any successful organization. For him, accountability simply means being reliable: knowing that when someone says she’ll do something, the thing gets done. When there is real accountability, Evans says, little checking-in and checking-up is required. Accountability creates trust. 

Evans says that the first piece of the “accountability puzzle” is clarity.  He talks about the importance of being specific in making requests or promises. If you aren’t clear and specific in explaining what you need, your odds of getting exactly what you want are slim. If your people are aiming at a moving target—or a target they can’t see—you’re bound to end up disappointed.  Evans also talks about the importance of being precise when discussing deadlines.  Say you ask for something to be completed “sometime today,” expecting it in your hands in mid-afternoon. Instead, you get the finished work at 6:00 PM. You’re annoyed, but the person completing the task feels satisfied. There is instantly a gap between the two of you. That’s true of promises as well as requests. If you tell someone you’ll deliver something “later today,” instead of, say, “by noon,” you create the possibility of misunderstanding. And misunderstanding erodes trust.

Evans also talks about ownership. He says that you can’t be truly accountable for something you don’t own. Maybe you only own a small part of it. Whatever you own, you can be held responsible for. But if you don’t have real autonomy in how the work is done, you don’t really own it, and you can’t be held fully accountable for the final product. Or if ownership is conferred ambiguously on members of a committee, with no clarity around what is expected from whom, then no one ends up being truly accountable.

Finally, Evans talks about being open and public about expectations and commitments, about making sure everyone knows, and everyone understands clearly, what has been asked for and what was been promised.

Accountability in Teacher Land

Already you can see where accountability can be problematic in the world of education. Doctors and lawyers operate within well-established and universally-accepted norms of practice—so well-accepted that proven violations can result in a loss of license to practice. Teachers have nothing like that. It’s nearly impossible to lose one’s teaching license because of shoddy practice. In fact, the word “malpractice” doesn’t even exist in our world, partly because we can’t all agree on what “best practice” actually is—which is shocking, given the amount of research that has been done in the field, from Marzano to Hattie. We should know what works and what doesn’t. In fact, we do know what works and what doesn’t. But if you are a teacher, what you believe about instruction is usually a personal concoction, brewed from a recipe consisting of your own background as a student, the training you received in college or graduate school, the influence of a mentor or senior teacher, and the years of experience you’ve had in the classroom. Your definition of “good practice” may or may not agree with the definitions of your fellow teachers in the building, or the view of your principal, and it may or may not coincide with the definition laid out in whatever teacher evaluation system your state has adopted. So already, we’re in trouble. If there is no agreement or clarity about what the job of teaching means and entails, the situation is ripe for miscommunication and disappointed expectations. This is why we have instances of teachers preparing detailed, standards-aligned lesson plans, only to be dinged during a walkthrough because the standard hasn’t been written in the upper right hand corner of the white board.

How about being open and public with expectations? Do we see that in our schools?  I would have to say, “Not really.” Far too often, teachers feel caught in a trap between what is said publically (“All students will be imaginative, creative, critical thinkers and problem-solvers with a rich base of content knowledge,”) and what is actually expected (“If your kids don’t ace those standardized tests, your job is on the line,”)—and usually, the private expectation is the one that ends up mattering. To compound the problem, if principals are not strong instructional leaders themselves, they may not know how to set explicit expectations for what they want. They’ll want the school to “improve.” They’ll want the students to “do better.” But they may not understand what those things really mean, or how to help teachers and students get there (witness the misunderstanding around what a “standards-based lesson” is, from the paragraph above).  And even if they are instructional leaders, if they don’t have school-wide agreement as to what constitutes best practice, nothing is likely to change.

All “Quid,” but no “Pro Quo”

One puzzle piece that Evans doesn’t discuss, but which I find incredibly important, is the piece I call, The Right Tools for the Job. Maybe he feels it’s so obvious that it doesn’t bear mentioning, but it’s massively unfair to hold someone accountable for completing a task if they don’t have the resources they need to do it. And that is something we see in our schools every day.  We expect excellent, thoughtful, inspiring teaching, while treating our teachers like assembly-line factory workers. We set rigorous goals for literacy, while shuttering school libraries. We talk about global citizenship, but react in horror if a teacher tries to bring too much of the outside world into the classroom. We hope for curious, well-rounded, soulful young children, but slash funds to expose them to music, theatre, and arts. We talk about 21st century skills, but we ask our schools to manage with 20-year-old computer equipment and shaky Internet connectivity locked behind a restrictive firewall that prevents science students from researching “breast cancer.”

Sometimes, the problem isn’t just the lack of tools; it’s the setting of completely unattainable goals. Recently, Dr. Sean McGrew wrote about the legacy of No Child Left Behind, and the many reasons why the goal of “Adequate Yearly Progress” was a “useful fiction,” that could never really be achieved. As he said, “a metric that is not what it seems to be is confusing and dangerous.” 

Accountability only works if it’s a two-way street, and yet in our schools, teachers are expected to “own” a student’s academic performance, regardless of that child’s background, previous experience, unique abilities, and special challenges—and they are expected to effect change for that child without the time, resources, or support needed to do the job effectively.  

What happens when a person is given unclear or unreasonable expectations, and is then denied the resources needed even to make an effort at meeting those goals?  If teachers come to realize that the game is rigged against them, and that the consequences of failure are extreme, is it any wonder that some of them resort to cheating  to protect their jobs and their students?

Salutary Neglect

Does this mean that we should just leave teachers alone and “let them teach?” Yes and no. It would be lovely if we could stop driving teachers crazy with This Year’s New Program at the school level and This Decade’s Political Initiative in Congress. It would be nice if we could stop threatening to fire them if they don’t achieve the impossible. But leaving teachers alone shouldn’t mean leaving them isolated and unsupported. That’s not good for anyone’s practice. And we shouldn’t say that oversight and management has to stop at the classroom door. The “shopping mall school,” where every teacher operates like an independent contractor and does whatever she thinks is best, is not good for the children who move from teacher to teacher.

As educators, we’ve got to get over the thought that what we do is too complex to be explained, or that we are only accountable to ourselves. If there can be professional standards and protocols for conducting brain surgery, there can be professional standards and protocols for teaching. Just because we haven’t figured them out yet doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The systems laid out by Robert Marzano, Charlotte Danielson, and James Stronge are all good efforts at capturing the domains and competencies of teaching. Each has its strong points and its limitations. Unfortunately, the states that have adopted these systems—and then turned them into quantitative, punitive instruments of judgment—have, to some extent, wrecked what’s good about the rubrics, obscuring their value as tools for professional growth. The states that have fetishized student test scores over qualitative observations have made it plain that good teaching is less meaningful than test prep, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. So if teachers aren’t buying in, it’s not really much of a surprise.

As Henry Evans made clear, a culture of accountability is a culture of trust, where every member of an organization knows what is expected and what she, in turn, can expect—a culture where everyone can be relied upon to do good work. That doesn’t just happen; it has to be cultivated and managed. And when it exists, heavy-handed evaluation tends to disappear, because we hold each other (and ourselves) accountable to high standards all the time, just as a matter of course.

In 1775, Edmund Burke coined the term “salutary neglect” to refer to the British government’s practice of “leaving the Colonies alone” to flourish without heavy-handed interference (a practice that was, by 1775, rapidly disappearing). He said it was clear that the flourishing Colonies owed “little or nothing to any care of ours,” and had not been “squeezed into this happy [successful] form by the constraints of watchful and suspicious government.” It’s true that the Colonies were doing just fine without his paternalistic guidance. But he was wrong that the Colonies owed nothing to Britain. They were not operating in total isolation and independence; they had developed, over a long period of time, a system of self-government based on a variety of historical models, from those of the ancient Greeks to those of their British cousins, and those of their neighboring Iroquois. They had an effective set of norms at their disposal, and they were doing good work for themselves and for the mother country. The wiser heads of Parliament suggested that they be left alone to continue flourishing. Others disagreed and decided to “squeeze them” harder into more rigid compliance and obedience.

We all know how that turned out.