The Unequal United States — Which State is the best to teach in?

Divide and conquer.

This piece was originally published in the Bad Ass Teachers Association Blog.

In one of the Facebook groups that I follow, a member posed this question: “Just out of curiosity: what’s the best state to teach in, and why?” A flurry of comments came in — 347 comments were generated from that one question! I found the responses to be both enlightening and disturbing.

Some of the comments were humorous:

“A state of bliss.”

“A state of denial.”

“A state of sobriety.”

“A state of intoxication.”

Some comments looked outside of the United States:

“Finland” (This country was written many times.)

“International schools.”

“On-line.”

While a few teachers commented:

“No state.”

“None, get out of teaching.”

“Don’t go into any state of teaching.”

Most respondents answered very strongly concerning the state they taught in. The “best” states characteristics tended to be geographically north-eastern, union-supported, secure in teacher tenure rights and included average to above-average teacher pay, including pensions.

The top state responses: Massachusetts, New York (but not always NYC), New Jersey (but there was much discussion over Governor Christie), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, and northern Virginia (not southern), Minnesota, and California.

The meh states included Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The characteristics of states to avoid included: hostile governors, anti-union sentiment, right-to-work laws, lacked teacher tenure rights, lacked pension benefits, and paid teachers unlivable wages. These “bad” states were listed as: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico.

I was happy to see New York (my home state) cited favorably frequently among the comments. Although Governor Cuomo and the Board of Regents have caused havoc to the teacher evaluation process and continue to over-test our children, it was a bit encouraging to hear from NY teachers that they still believed in our public schools. I am sure all the New York teachers posting could easily point out huge issues in New York schools, but the negative comments are nothing close to what teachers from the “bad” states were saying.

Florida was touted as the worst of the worst.

Why is this stark inequality so significant? Because inequity is the fuel for the fire of corporate education reform. Inequity ignites the narrative of “those failing public schools” and the “need” for more choices. Inequity attracts residents and teachers to flock to certain “good” schools in certain “desirable” areas. Inequity promotes corporation’s profits recruits corporate charter school investment. Inequity increases segregation along both racial and socio-economic divides.

The “state” of public education is so disparate and the inequity in funding is so varied that we can no longer define “American Education.” Instead, each state’s education has its own meaning — creating savage inequalities in the United States.

So which schools has Betsy DeVos visited in her short tenure as the United States Secretary of Education?

  • Jefferson Middle School Academy, Washington, D.C. on February 10, 2017.
  • St. Andrew Catholic School, Orlando, Florida, on March 3, 2017 (accompanied by Trump).
  • Carderock Springs Elementary School, Bethesda, Maryland on March 23, 2017, where she read from Dr. Suess’ Oh The Places You Will Go.
  • Kimberly Hampton Primary School, Fort Bragg, North Carolina on April 3, 2017 — a school run by the Department of Defense.
  • Excel Academy Public Charter School, Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2017, (accompanied by the First Lady and the Queen of Jordan).
  • Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence (CARE) Elementary School, Miami Florida on April 6, 2017.
  • SLAM Charter School, Miami, Florida on April 6, 2017 (the school is supported by the rapper, Pitbull).
  • Royal Palm Elementary School, Miami, Florida on April 7, 2017 (this is a traditional public school).
  • Van Wert Elementary and Van Wert High School, Van Wert, Ohio on April 20, 2017 (accompanied by Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT).
  • Ashland Elementary School, Manassas, Virginia, on April 25, 2017 (student population is largely from military families).
  • North Park Elementary School, Los Angelos, California, on April 28, 2017 (after a teacher and her student were killed by a gunman).
  • Cornerstone Christian School, Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2017 (as the name suggests, this school is Christian school).
  • Center City Charter School, Washington, D.C., on May 5, 2017 (first Catholic-to-charter school conversion).
  • Granite Technical Institute, Salt Lake City, Utah on May 9, 2017.

Source: Education Week: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/campaign-k-12/2017/04/weingarten_devos_van_wert_hold.html

Overwhelmingly Betsy DeVos has visited schools that fit her perspective of “good” schools. These schools tend to be located in regions of the United States where funding for public education is abysmal and where school vouchers, educational scholarships, and white flight from public schools is typical. And, with the exception of a few schools listed above, most of these schools are located in states where professionals are urging their fellow teachers to avoid.

In war, a great strategy is divide and conquer. Public schools in the United States are already horribly divided — divided by curriculum, funding, facilities, teacher preparation, race, and socio-economic factors. The public’s opinion of schools is at all time low. Make no mistake, the war on public education is raging. Betsy DeVos and the forces of privatization and corporatization are closing in. Their victory would be a tremendous loss for the children of the United States.

It is time for battle. It is time for public school advocates to lead. It is time for teachers to find their voices, collectively. How does the resistance begin? The first step comes in sensible shoes during the upcoming March For Public Education in our nation’s capital on July 22, 2017, or in sister-city marches across the country.

The July 22, 2017, March for Public Education is critical. Please consider clicking the heart ❤️ icon above, following the March For Education Blog Publication, following on Twitter, liking the page on Facebook, participating in the march, and donating to the march. You can also buy a t-shirt to support public education by clicking here.

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Yes or no? What is your school choice?

Where is the grass greener?

May 16, 2017, has passed and so have the school budgets across the region of America that I call home — central New York. Central New York is known for its wicked snow squalls, allegiance to Syracuse University’s sports, Heid’s hot dogs, and its support of publicly funded education. Very few people send their children to private, parochial, or charter schools. A small minority home-school their kids. The vast majority of residents send their children to public schools because they too attended a public school — the proof shown in the t-shirt with their high school colors stuck in the back a dresser.

Central New York might not be a very exciting place, but it has Wegmans, medical centers, colleges, and public schools. This mix of fresh produce, access to health care, and standardized education creates a standard of living that is part of the American dream. It is also very expensive. Central New Yorkers pay high property and school taxes. A gallon of milk is under two dollars (I am sorry for my dairy farming friends), but residents pay more for gas, housing, cigarettes, and booze compared with other areas.

What do central New Yorkers gain from paying higher taxes than say, residents of South Carolina, where my mother recently moved into a nice home with the total tax bill of under $500 a year? What exactly does the American dream cost, and what do communities get for their money?

  • Central New Yorkers get many hospitals, with specialists and research.
  • Central New Yorkers get snow plowing and road maintenance.
  • Central New Yorkers get state subsidized colleges and universities.
  • Central New Yorkers get a foundation built on universal pre-kindergarten (in many school districts) and community-based schools that offer breakfasts and lunch to many students.
  • Central New Yorkers get teachers with Master’s Degrees.
  • Central New Yorkers get an educated workforce.

So, why are there so many “no” votes listed in the results from May 16, 2017?

http://cnycentral.com/news/local/live-2016-2017-school-budget-vote-results

I am sure there are many reasons for the negative votes. Some people believe that school spending is out of control. Some people are facing financial hardships and see their school tax bill as exorbitant. Some people had terrible school experiences as a student themselves, or as a parent. Some people are upset at their local school’s decisions. These are all understandable reasons.

Other people who vote “no” claim that they do not want to pay for other people’s children to attend school. For the same reasons that these people do not support universal health care — these voters only want to pay for themselves; they do not want to help “other” people anymore. They are sick of hand-outs and entitlements.

I wonder what would happen if public education was no longer an option? Would these “no” voters be upset? Would they eventually long for the publicly funded system? Would they lament corporate greed that would inevitably infiltrate our schools? Would they proudly wear their school colors, or would they wonder which school to offer their allegiance?

I also wonder about the low voter turn-out. Why do so few people decide that voting on the school budget does not fit into their schedule? What is more important than children and finances? Is the low turn-out due to complacency? Do residents simply believe that public schools were available for them, so, therefore, they will always be present in the future? Do they not see that the grass grows greener where you water it and that public education is bone dry? So dry that people seek to “fix” it with their own brand of fertilizer so that “choice” can be offered to parents who might not recognize that public schools are the Kentucky Blue Grass seed and privatization is contractor grade?

Ultimately, the residents of the many school districts in central New York have approved funding for the 2017–2018 school year, and I thank them. I appreciate their “yes” vote because it is a vote of confidence in a system that, like my yard, is riddled with bare spots and filled with weeds, but looks beautiful when well watered and cared for.

Do you care about public education? Please comment below, click the heart icon, and join the march event on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/events/254445494966564/. Support the march at: https://www.gofundme.com/march4ed

5 Reasons Why I, a 43-Year-Old Woman, Binge Watched ’13 Reasons Why’


Over the recent spring break, I binge watched the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s book of the same title. I am not the target audience for this work, but I could not stop watching this story about adolescence, sexual assault, and teenage suicide. The following is a list of five reasons why I, a middle-aged woman, was enthralled with the story:

1. I teach high school social studies

When I returned to work on Monday, I felt myself scanning the faces of the adolescents that I teach in a large suburban high school north of Syracuse, NY. As I was getting through a lesson on the cold war, I began to wonder how many of my students sitting before me had watched the series? At least half of my class? What were their takeaways? Which character(s) were they most like? Which part of the story resonated with them? Who among these classes was suicidal? Were my students like me, did they continue to live with the characters like I was?

Occasionally a film or a book will strike a chord with my students. I had previously heard students discuss Jay Asher’s novel, but I think the movie will have a deeper impact on adolescents — a group that is tremendously visual. The story is slick, a California cool. If a tired old lady like myself felt compelled to binge watch this movie, adolescents will watch this on repeat. A myriad of conversation topics arise from this story — sex, alcohol, drugs, parents, school, sports, cliques — it covers the spectrum of the high school experience.

2. I have had students attempt suicide

Almost every year I hear about a student attempting suicide. Thankfully, I have not known a student to be successful, but every year at least one student whom I have taught attempts to kill them self. The school I teach in has wonderful social workers, counselors, and teachers, but schools are not equipped for mental health issues.

As a classroom teacher, I hear about the suicide attempts with a statement of confidentially. Teachers get bits and pieces of a student’s story. We hear things like: “Jimmy took a shotgun to the gut last night.” “Nicole took a lot of pills.” These students are absent for a time period. They return, and I am supposed to act like nothing occurred. My job is to teach facts, not to counsel. I am completely useless when it comes to my student’s mental health.

As I watched 13 Reasons Why I searched for signs that might be apparent to me in the reality of my teaching. The main character, Hannah Baker, continually showed me that she was so normal. She was interacting in a typical high school. The actress told the audience that there were no signs. There was only silence. Silence is the enemy.

3. I am raising two daughters

The stupid internet went out two nights in a row during the time when I could watch the series without my daughters’ awareness. So, I found myself hiding in my bedroom, the door shut, trying to keep my daughters away, as I finished watching the series. My twelve-year-old daughter was my biggest concern. She had caught me earlier and commented that her fifteen-year-old cousin was watching this. I said, rather abruptly: “You can’t watch this.” I said it so quickly. I had to protect my daughter. It wasn’t just the sex, it was the entire story that made me pucker. I just don’t think she is ready. I am not ready for her to see rape.

“You can’t watch this.”

However, it is not the sexual aspects of the story that bother me as much as the mental health issues. Two students in the story kill themselves and others locate weapons or escape with substances. As I watched the anguish of Hannah Baker’s parents in the film, I connected with their struggles. They were having financial difficulties and marriage problems. They were not “seeing” their daughter. I worried about my own parenting. Am I missing my daughters, especially the oldest? She is entering adolescence. I want to give her freedom. I want her to be independent and competent. I also want to be the wall that she swims to — I want to give her a safe place to rest and restore herself from a hurtful world.

If you are interested in exploring the parental side of this issue, Ijeoma Oluo, in her piece ’13 Reasons Why’ Scared The Shit Out Of Me — And It Should Scare You Too, does a fantastic job of explaining every parent’s worst nightmare.

4. I wanted to compare

I was curious to see if my own high school experience compared to the one portrayed in 13 Reasons Why. It held up. Although I graduated over twenty years ago, the setting of the story is iconic: the American High School. I also remember watching teenage movies in my youth. 13 Reasons Why was reminiscent of Pretty in Pink’s images of rich and poor kids. There were The Breakfast Club similarities with the cliques and the social outcasts. There were also times that I thought about the film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, especially in terms of the pressure of sexual interaction.

However, my generation did not have fucking social media, and cell phones equipped with cameras that could instantly message the entire school. Images of our worst choices were not permanently stored for continual humiliation. My generation could escape school. We could go home. Adolescents today are tethered to their phones and are bombarded by drama, images, and a fake sense of intimacy.

5. I am Hannah Baker

And so is every girl. The female teenage body is the most objectified and fantasized image in the world. Every time the picture of Hannah Baker’s underwear peeking out of her skirt was passed around we understand why women are not yet equal. It is portrayed as “boys being boys.” When her ass is grabbed in public and rated the “best” rear end at her high school, nothing about her intellect is celebrated. When the student president reaches up her skirt as she drinks her milkshake, we witness the constant assault to her innocence — any ownership of her sexuality is eroded away. Her vulnerability is so raw that by the time she is raped it almost feels inevitable. As the crime is committed, the camera lingers on her expression — one of complete frozen resignation. Her soul is depleted and the sexual act evokes a scene of a veteran prostitute.


Ultimately, I will watch this movie with my daughters. I am confident that this story will come up in conversations with my students. The degree to which I am disturbed by this work is a positive force for my teaching and parenting. It is a wake-up call for me to see my students and my children in the world in which they need to navigate. Maybe I was not the target audience, but I urge anyone who loves an adolescent to watch this series.

Here is another article about ways teachers can discuss 13 Reasons Why: https://www.weareteachers.com/discussion-questions-13-reasons-why/

This piece on medium.com:  https://medium.com/@brownberryfarm/5-reasons-why-i-a-43-year-old-woman-binged-watched-13-reasons-why-5c1ca46f1cbb

I am the NY Excelsior Scholarship


Confessions of a middle-aged debtor.


Hello, my name is Laura, and I am a debtor. Last year, at forty-two- years-old, I wrote my final student loan repayment check. Phew…that sounds like a confession at an AA meeting — Hello, Laura. People with student loans might need a support group. Debt, like addiction, is a deep hole one climbs out of day by day. Repayment is similar to a twelve-step recovery program that for many people can last 252 months.

For the first 21 years of our professional careers, my husband and I paid for our education. We never missed a payment, but student loan repayment limited our financial trajectory — it impacted where we lived, what type of cars we bought, decided if we took vacations, and determined how big of a house we purchased. I will never regret my education, and I accepted that it was the price of doing business, but I will always feel the weight of that heavy burden of debt my entire life.

My mother, a single-mother most of my childhood, made very little money, so I did qualify for grants, but most of my education was funded by work and loans. My husband did have the support of his parents, both educators, but with three sons in college and other expenses, their help could only go so far, and their income was too high for my husband to qualify for grants. This perfect storm caused us to begin our marriage with a giant monkey on our backs.

In 1995, I began my teaching career making $28,000 a year. After taxes, rent, student loan payments, food, and utilities, I had about $100 remaining every month. There was absolutely no wiggle room in my monthly budget. When my husband graduated, he earned about $20,000 as a chemist and so with our meager $48,000 combined gross income, and $25,000 in student debt, with mortgaged a $70,000 split-level in the burbs. We were college-educated, we were employed, and we were maxed out. The numbers might have changed over the last twenty years, but this reality is true for many college-educated people across the nation. Increasingly, college graduates are beginning their lives in a deep hole — many are not living the middle-class lifestyle that college education promised.

In 2003, our financial life began to slowly improve. I transferred to a higher paying district, and my husband opened our own business (which deserves another post.) However, we still could not wipe our student debt clean — we bought a more expensive home, we had children, we needed new cars — life happened, and the cost of living increased.

Besides paying the student loans, the mortgage, the car payment, the utilities, food, etc, we have managed to put aside a small amount of money in our daughter’s NY529 college funds. These funds might allow our daughters to begin their lives without that ball and chain of student debt. The Excelsior Scholarship gives me hope that by 2022, the year our oldest is ready for college, she might qualify for the scholarship. (Under current income guidelines, she would qualify.) If tuition was not an issue, my husband and I could swing the room and board for our girls. Furthermore, as currently written, they would need to stay in NY for four years post graduation. This would encourage them to remain close to home. Our oldest has already chosen the northwestern corner of our 40 acres where she will build her dream home.

Although I fear that the political winds will change, or that we will make just a hair pass the qualifying income in 2022, I am happy that states like NY are rethinking the value of investing in higher education. lnvestment in public education (pre-k through college) is truly what a modern, industrialized nation needs in order to compete in a global world.

For thirty-eight years, I have been connected to public education in the great state of New York. Never straying more than 100 miles away from central New York, I attended the Marcellus, West Genesee, Jordan-Elbridge, and North Syracuse public school districts. These four school districts gave me a sanctuary, opportunities, athletics, and quality instruction. I earned my BA in History from the State University of New York at Geneseo and landed my first teaching gig at Wellwood Middle School in the Fayetteville-Manlius public school district. Fourteen years ago, I began teaching at my present location, Liverpool High School. Regardless of size, location, or funding, every time that I have participated in public school education in New York State, I have grown both personally and intellectually. I am a full product of public education. I am made in NY.

When Governor Cuomo announced his plan to offer “free” tuition to SUNY and CUNY students I was excited but skeptical. I wondered how would a state like NY, that has lost people, jobs, and stature, pay for this program? Politicians like Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin of Troy, and Senator John DeFrancisco of Syracuse oppose the idea of the scholarship, these men wonder how the program will be funded. DeFrancisco opposes the tuition hike to non-qualifying students. McLaughlin promotes tax credits instead of tax subsidies. I ask these men a Dr. King type of question: “If not now gentlemen, then when?” Now is the time to amplify what our state still has — quality public education. We may have lost Carrier, GE, and other manufacturing. Those types of jobs are not coming back. Automation has also changed manufacturing and shifted the workforce. New York needs to concentrate on what we do well — we need to continue to lead the nation in education.

Furthermore, I say to Senator DeFrancisco and Assemblyman McLaughlin, please consider New Yorkers like me. I would have qualified for that scholarship. If my daughters were currently college-aged, they would qualify for that scholarship. The cost of education is holding people back and it is helping to erode any semblance of a middle-class lifestyle. New York is not alone, Rhode Island is introducing tuition assistance without income requirements in its upcoming state budget. Tennessee and Oregon already have similar college assistance programs.

If we really want to make America great again, we need to get off the student-debt cycle. It is decreasing the value of education and it is depressing the middle-class. Our children should not have to pay the bill for our unwillingness to invest in their future. Furthermore, states like New York have bled out — young people are not staying. The Excelsior Scholarship and similar programs offer people encouragement and incentives to remain.

Why Brown vs. Board of Education was bad for education

brown

Teaching United States history always includes the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Usually, the case is framed in the context of Jim Crow Laws, systemic segregation, and the civil rights movement. Often Plessy v. Ferguson is cited alongside the Brown decision. It is clear cut instruction: separate is never equal. Students connect to the message, and names like Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and Ruby Bridges are student favorites as models of civil disobedience and persistence in the face of hatred.

In the 1990s, my alma mater, SUNY-Geneseo, invited Linda Brown to speak about her involvement in the historic Brown decision. I remember sitting in the auditorium with rapt attention. Her message was one of hope and empowerment, but also of a dream deferred. I often mention her talk when teaching about the civil rights movement.

It is so comforting to teach about an underdog story. It is heartening to tell students that the United States has come so far. It is nice to point to the Obama legacy as evidence of a post-racial society. Except, none of that is true. We are not post-racial. We are not equal.

Although people love to champion Brown vs. Board of Education, one of the biggest negative impacts was the firing of teachers during the merger of white and black schools. Jose Luis Vilson discusses a major impact of Brown when he writes in his article “The Need for More Teachers of Color”, published in the Summer, 2015 edition of American Educator:

“For instance, when the Supreme Court began to mandate that southern states comply with Brown v. Board of Education, more than 30,000 black teachers and administrators were fired to ensure that white teachers kept their jobs.”

When teaching as an adjunct at LeMoyne College, students enrolled in an introduction to teaching course often highlight Vilson’s findings. Students express dismay at the exponential ramifications. If 30,000 black educators were fired, that means there were 30,000 fewer role models for black students. There were 30,000 less black teachers to model black leadership to white students. There were 30,000 people who had to find alternative careers, many of whom left a middle-class path. 30,000 multiplied by 63 years equals a shortage of teachers of color.

Think about it, if you are white, how many non-white educators have you had? If you are white, how many non-white teachers do you know? If you are non-white, how many non-white role models have you had in your education?

The school choice issue is another layer in America’s racial question. Many urban educators and parents want better educational opportunities due to De Facto segregation and the underfunding of predominantly non-white schools. Others, like Secretary of Education DeVos, want parents to have the financial ability to flee “failing” schools — often these “failing” schools are predominantly non-white. Regardless of the reasons or the rhetoric, race continues to plague our schools, and we continue to be both separate and unequal.

Why the title: Teaching in Trump’s America?

Place, time, and history.

After recently asking a colleague to write about a wonderful teaching technique he employs, he told me that Teaching in Trump’s America was too political for him to be involved with during this time in his career.

I respect this person’s views. I can understand why many teachers are historically reluctant to raise their voices. I can even appreciate colleagues who support President Trump. Although I comprehend many reasons why educators might shy away from supporting Teaching in Trump’s America, I am troubled if the only excuse is politics, because teaching is political.

The name of the publication is provocative. Maybe some day, it can simply be called Teaching in America. For now, however, the inclusion of Trump’s name is significant because it clarifies place, time, and historical details.

Place: America

The United States has been viewed as a grand experiment by many. Experiments have variables and constants. Experiments can fail. Public schools are the great equalizer — children from diverse backgrounds can learn collectively, with many overcoming socio-economic differences. Education, especially public education, is the embodiment of democracy. American schools are microcosms of society. By analyzing American education, we learn more about our country as a whole.

Time: Post 9/11 World

Since the horrible events of September 11, 2001, many Americans have felt vulnerable. Unlike the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was no clear enemy. The kamikaze hijackers flew no country’s flag — instead, America’s enemies were radicalized and trained in many countries, including in the United States. Unease and anxiety, coupled with true economic stagnation, have increased the creation of “other.” This creation of “other” has made scapegoating possible. Unfortunately, teachers have been victims as well. Whether it be the teacher benefit of summer vacations, systemic school failure, or “liberal” intellectualism, teachers have often been cast as prosperous in a worldview of the haves versus have-nots.

Historical Details: From A Nation At Risk to Race to the Top

In 1983, the Reagan administration published A Nation At Risk. In 2002, the Bush Administration supported the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2010, the Obama Administration promoted the Race to the Top and later (2015) The Every Child Succeeds Act (reauthorizing the 50-year old Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which No Child Left Behind also reauthorized). For the last fifty years (most of the post-world war two era), politicians have used funding as a tool to mold American education — in a feeble attempt to make America competitive with other nations. These educational politics have promoted a narrative of school failure.

Therefore, Teaching in Trump’s America is an apt title for a publication that aims to shine a light on the realities of public school teaching. Minus the noise of politicians, publishing companies, and non-teaching “experts,” teacher’s authentic voices can be collectively raised. The story of education can change, one post at a time. Furthermore, true democracy can only survive with loud individuals speaking their truth to power.

https://medium.com/teaching-in-trumps-america

Staff Development Daze

And other educational myths.

Teachers are the worst students, especially on staff development days. Teachers often chat with one another, grade papers, work on their laptops, and play on their phones during presentations. Teachers often joke that they should wear a button to work that reads: “I would rather be teaching.” The snarky attitudes and rude behavior of many professionals are due, in part, to to the fact that teachers seldom gain much from educational training. Instead, instructional philosophies du jour are touted, and underfunded, or poorly implemented, initiatives are introduced.

I have, however, had many great days of staff development — often finding a positive thing/idea/method to take away. I can name many times when I drove home with my brain buzzing, filled with instructional ideas that I planned on implementing. I also truly appreciate the hard work and time that goes into planning staff development. The best staff development days resemble the plan for my district’s upcoming staff day — where teachers are asked to attend three sessions taught by their colleagues. I am looking forward to learning about new instructional technology, and about mindfulness, a wellness technique that sounds intriguing. There will even be food trucks — how cool is that?

Unfortunately, however, most staff days do not impact my teaching. For twenty-two years, I have been sold instructional philosophies that were supposed to change my teaching. Colleagues, educational consultants, administrators, and authors have all tried to shift my teaching. Not all of these philosophies fail, but most don’t stand the test of time. Take Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, for instance. In my undergraduate work (the big hair 90s) his book was required reading. I, being a new teacher without my own philosophy, bought into his ideas hook, line, and sinker. I even wasted instructional time every year to give my students multiple intelligence “tests”, discussing the best ways they learned. Not surprisingly, students (i.e. children) gravitated towards the kinesthetic learning style. No duh! Of course, kids like to be active! About ten years ago, I completely abandoned Gardner and realized that I never followed up my instruction after giving the students their assessment — it was simply like having them take a survey on Facebook: which learning style are you? My efforts and their analysis yielded no instructional rewards.

A colleague of mine, who always finds great articles, recently posted a piece by Ulrich Boser entitled: “What Do People Know About Excellent Teaching and Learning,” published online by the Center for American Progress. Boser is a Dartmouth-educated author and consultant. His bio states that he tried a stint at teaching English, but it seems his passion focuses on the analysis of teaching and learning. Although he is not in the teaching trenches, his article is provocative. His thesis is that education myths prevail, and, thus, the public in general, and education theorist specifically, disregard the “science of learning” as he calls it.

When discussing our teaching (often after a few beverages), a dear friend of mine has lamented to me: “The problem in education is that everyone has been a student, but not everyone has been a teacher.” I have always thought that a profound statement. So much so, that I lead with that quote when I teach an undergraduate class for pre-service teachers. After they dissect the meaning for themselves, I tell them that the purpose of the class is for them to see the “other” side of the desk. Some of the students are not planning on becoming teachers, and are taking the class for other reasons. These students are important as well because they are future taxpayers. Boser supports the idea of seeing the other side of the desk when he writes:

Since almost everyone in the United States has spent some time in schools, they are eager to expound on the quality and effectiveness of the latest reform or approach. But what’s clear is that experience in schools does not give someone a deep understanding of instruction. This is evident in the literature on teaching, and there’s a library of studies that show that pedagogical training helps teachers in the classroom.

Boser goes on to give examples of educational myths and then he writes something even more important. He gets to the crux of the problem with the educational reform movement, illuminating why teachers are often cranky on staff development days. He writes:

These attitudes about teaching help explain why teaching is so devalued. If people believe that it’s easy for someone to perform well in the classroom, then society shouldn’t reward teaching because the job doesn’t require rigorous training. In contrast, it’s widely accepted that doctors and lawyers need a great deal of training to succeed, and people in those fields get paid a lot more. Those fields also do a lot more to support younger professionals. In medicine, there are residency programs, while law firms typically have systems to have experienced partners help younger lawyers.

That is it. Staff days are non-instructional days. These days take away from time needed to implement effective teaching. Teachers want valuable, rich, “robust” (as Boser states) instructional science. We want our profession to be valued and supported.

Boser is refreshing however because he offers some insightful recommendations to change the conversation:

Policymakers at all levels should do more to promote the science of teaching and learning, including:

Funding a center within the U.S. Department of Education to develop more practitioners guides that focus on the science of learning. Some of the Department of Education’s practitioners guides have a dedicated following. But more could be done, and some of the guides have not been sufficiently disseminated. The department should also create a program similar to the White House petition program, through which parents and teachers could suggest ideas for guides and produce material that is easily disseminated to the public.

Providing more funding for research on the science of learning and the translation of that research into practice. The National Institutes of Health currently gets far more funding than the Department of Education’s research arm.26Policymakers should realize the benefits of learning science research and allocate more funding to basic and applied education research. Much more funding should also go to helping educators apply the research into classroom contexts, as David Daniel has argued.27 “The science of learning does not design interventions for use by educators,” Daniel says, thus recommending more “translation” efforts.

Policymakers at all levels should help modernize the teacher workforce. As part of its TeachStrong effort, the Center for American Progress and its partners have outlined a set of principles that would dramatically modernize and elevate the teacher workforce.28 A few of the recommendations are particularly relevant, including:

“Reimagin[ing] teacher preparation to make it more rooted in classroom practice and a professional knowledge base, with universal high standards for all candidates.”29 By ensuring that teacher preparation programs have rigorous standards for entry and training, policymakers can raise the status of the teaching profession to levels of other, more highly regarded careers. Improving teacher preparation would help correct the public’s conception of teaching as a profession that does not require training, knowledge, and a specified skillset.

“Increas[ing] compensation in order to attract and reward teachers as professionals.” By increasing compensation for all teachers and shortening the amount of time it takes for a teacher to achieve maximum salary, policymakers can send a clear signal to the public that teaching is a challenging career that requires advanced training and continued skill-building.

Policymakers at all levels should support demonstration projects of successful, next-generation learning. Such projects would go a long way toward building public narratives that support good practice. Recommendations include:

Developing so-called super charter schools based on the science of learning. Taking a page from the Small Business Innovation Research program, the author proposes that each state that receives Title I funds set aside 0.5 percent of those funds for super charters. These competitive contracts would help schools rethink education in ways that support the new science of learning. For instance, a school might develop a proposal to do more to space out student learning over time.

Providing active learning grants. Policymakers at the federal or state level should consider funding district-level programs devoted to developing more active forms of learning, such as quizzing, pretesting, and elaboration. This pilot program would help districts and schools develop active learning programs by providing funding as well as waivers for some current requirements. Similar to the innovation grants offered by the Department of Education, winners would need to work to publicize their lessons learned.”

These recommendations offer a path for teachers to begin the conversation with colleagues, politicians, and the public at large. This a plan that embraces cognitive science and its application in the classroom. These recommendations also offer those that care about education an action plan.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please comment, ask questions, and/0r share your experiences.