The Insufficiency of “Proficiency”

‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all thro’ the state
All the children were stirring, eager to learn their fate;
Their test scores from April would soon be delivered,
I hope I’m proficient the children all quivered;
The wait’s been soooo long…my hands are all sweaty
I need to know now … am I college and career ready?

After eight months of waiting, thousands of Oklahoma students are finally receiving the results of state testing from last April. The majority of these students will be handed a lump of coal telling them they don’t read so well. Some will explain to them that the previous year’s testing saying they were proficient or advanced was nothing more than a lie. Furthermore, this falsehood was willingly perpetrated on them by teachers and school administrators who lowered academic standards to create the illusion of academic progress to avoid sanctions (doing their job) and support an argument for increased school funding.

And, by shaming teachers and telling kids the supposed brutal truth about their inadequacies, the idea is everyone will work harder and smarter and we will make more kids proficient – not FAKE proficiency, mind you – but the new and improved proficiency only accessible through higher standards and more difficult assessments.

Of course we all remember No Child Left Behind. The 2001 law passed under President George Bush stipulated that 100% of American students were to become “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 — a hopelessly utopian goal – and then set sanctions for those states that didn’t make “adequate yearly progress” in meeting that goal. Reformers will quickly point out what they perceive to be the critical flaw of NCLB, that being that states were allowed to determine their own unique academic standards and definitions for proficiency.

Consequently, a child deemed proficient in fourth grade reading in one state could move to a neighboring state, take a similar assessment to the one he took before, and be labeled “limited knowledge” or “unsatisfactory” or even “advanced” for that matter. In short, his or her “proficiency” depended less on their reading skills and more on where they sat on the day they took a test.

Well, here we are, nearly a generation later – after moving from NCLB to RtTT to ESSA – still trying to figure out exactly what we mean when we say, “proficient.” We have become so accustomed to throwing this word around to describe our students’ abilities and their level of “achievement,” we have lost sight of the fact that the term often doesn’t mean a damn thing, kind of like “all-natural,” “less fat,” “organic,” and “Republican.”

The problem is there is no clear and universally agreed upon definition of “proficient” when it comes to math, reading, or much of anything.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. When it comes to state testing, “proficient” does have one very specific meaning — “having scored above an arbitrarily set cut score on a multiple-choice standardized test.” Yet, like the similarly obtuse term, “student achievement” (which literally means “test scores”), it has been carefully chosen because it suggests so much more than it actually means. Therefore, when a child is deemed “proficient” on the appropriate state test, we are told we can take that one-day snapshot of a child’s performance on a computer-based multiple choice test and extrapolate it into a some kind of false equivalency about being “college- and career-ready.”

I suppose a child who learns to walk at an early age of nine months of age could similarly be labeled as more “Olympic-ready” than his fellow ankle biter who doesn’t gain walking proficiency until his twelfth month. Come to think of it, why aren’t we scolding these lazy kids and setting our standards higher (“All children shall walk by ten months”) while subjecting them to a constant admonishment of, “Walk, damn it!”

Anyhow, let’s take a moment to dissect what it means to call someone a proficient reader?

Does it mean a child can finish an entire hundred page novel? Does she have to understand it or just get through it? Is there a time limit? Does she have to finish it in less than a month? A week? A year?

Can it be any novel? Does it have to be a modern one, or can it be a classic? If an eighth grade child can get through “The Giver” but not “The Iliad,” is he still a proficient reader?

If I read Animal Farm, but I just think it’s a fantasy about barnyard animals who can talk, am I proficient, or do I have to grasp Orwell’s intricate political satire to be proficient? Must I also be able to see symbolism behind the characters Old Major, Napoleon, and Snowball and their connection to their historical parallels of Marx, Stalin, and Trotsky? Can I really say I understood the book if I lack the background knowledge to grasp its critical themes and connect them to modern life?

What about poetry? Does someone have to be able to read poetry to be proficient? What types of poetry and from what historical periods? Should a proficient reader be inspired or moved to tears by what she reads, or does reading proficiency have to do only with mechanics, rhyming patterns, and vocabulary? Does proficiency translate into a desire to communicate one’s own thoughts in writing or simply understand what others have written?

Should a proficient reader be able to read and follow instructions, say, for assembling a IKEA bedroom set? Would a proficient reader be able to follow the instructions even if the writer of the instructions was not a proficient English language writer? How about being able to summarize the list of possible side effects in the literature for a blood pressure medication you get from the pharmacy or the prospectus from an investment banker?

Can a proficient reader deal with non-fiction reading? How about, say, Steven Hawking’s “The Origins of the Universe?” I’ve read this several times and can’t quite wrap my brain around the ideas.

As a citizen and future voter, should a high school student who is a proficient reader be able understand the word choice and sequencing of ideas in a George Will editorial? Does proficiency mean being able to understand the difference between truth, propaganda, and outright lies?

(Honestly, can any test we give kids truly measure a child’s level of discernment, synthesis, curiosity, and healthy skepticism? If no, are we really measuring “reading?”)

How about legal documents or piece of legislation? Does a proficient reader read well enough to understand them kind of, or completely, or at least well enough to mount a capable counter-argument to the legal document? Would I count as proficient if I only ever read chunks of reading that were all 1000 words or less (like, say, one of my blog posts), or does proficiency mean dealing with longer, more involved writing?

If college readiness is part of proficiency, does that mean a proficient, college- and career-ready reader is prepared to do the assigned reading for a class on French Literature at Princeton or a class on Theoretical Engineering at MIT or a class in Music Appreciation at Gooberville Junior College? Speaking of levels of ability, would a proficient reader read all of a L. Ron Hubbard or Stephanie Meyers novel and recognize they had just read something terribly written? Would a proficient reader have made it all the way through this unnecessarily lengthy paragraph, or would a proficient reader have figured out that I was using verbosity to make a rhetorical point and just skipped to the end?

Or does “proficient” just mean being able to manage the scattered dribs and drabs of reading-related tasks that we can easily work into a standardized test?

Not only do we have to pretend that we actually know what “proficient” means when it comes to reading and math, we have to go on to claim that we can glean a clear and accurate picture of that myriad of complex skills with one standardized test. And, in Oklahoma, we have decided to assess a child’s reading proficiency with fifty to sixty multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble questions.

Even worse, we have no evidence that any of this test-based accountability is creating children who love reading and are committed to lifelong-learning. In fact, the opposite may be true. According to a well-publicized study by Common Sense Media, American teenagers are less likely to read “for fun” at seventeen than at thirteen. For too many children, reading a real book has become a chore, like cleaning their room or prepping a meal for a kid brother. As a result, it is estimated that about one in four adults will never read an entire book in their lives after finishing their academic studies.

So the next time you read a piece like this OCPA propaganda or this alarming story about dramatic drops in student proficiency rates in the Daily Oklahoman, keep in mind that all these people waxing philosophically about what “proficient” means might as well be discussing the snack preferences of modern-day unicorns.

We all know they prefer rainbow donuts. Duh!


A Collision On North Lincoln

A few minutes after 4:00 pm last Friday …

Charles McCall shifts his car into drive and pulls out onto North Lincoln Boulevard. As he speeds away, he catches a fleeting glimpse of the Oklahoma Capitol Dome in his rear-view mirror. He smiles contentedly and purrs, “I did it.”

After nearly two months of carefully orchestrated legislative kabuki theater, also known as the Special Session, McCall had been able to fight off multiple attempts from Democrats and even members of his own party to raise taxes to deal with a “made up” budget crisis.

He thinks to himself: “Those fools didn’t know who they were dealing with.”

He reaches over to his cellphone on the passenger seat and notices an incoming text from Harold Hamm. The billionaire CEO of Continental Oil had just sent a congratulatory text praising the House Speaker for his tenacity and impeccable fortitude. “Well done, Mr. Speaker,” the text concludes.

He eyes the intersection ahead. Still green.

Charles muses, “We don’t have a revenue problem in Oklahoma. We have a spending problem. We have to learn to live within our means. Why is that so hard for people to understand?

Approaching rapidly on his left, Charles spots the vehicle of the Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Schulz. As Schulz pulls even with McCall, the two share a knowing glance and cagey grin.

Together, the two legislative leaders had spent the last two months engaged in a friendly joust, a faux fight meticulously designed to give the public the perception that they truly wanted to address the structural problems of the FY2018 budget. When the cameras were on, the two talked earnestly about implementing revenue solutions to shore up the state’s lagging health and social services budgets and fund teacher and state employee pay raises. They even tossed in an increase in the Gross Production Tax just for fun, knowing full well “strings could be pulled” if necessary to ensure the bill would never pass.

Of course, it wouldn’t.

And now, eight weeks after they hammered their gavels to bring the session to order, they had presided over passage of House Bill 1019X, a patchwork of half-baked solutions built on shifting sands: a drawing down of the state’s Rainy Day Fund, pillaging of agency cash reserves and revolving funds, and a 2.44% across-the-board funding cut for a majority of state agencies.

This action was more than simply kicking the can down the road. This was filling the can with kerosene, lighting a slow fuse, and burying it under the capital building for the next legislature to deal with.

Schulz rolls down his window and yells, “Where you off to now, Charles?

McCall replies with a smile. “I’m thinking of heading down to Mexico. How about you, Mike?

“Not sure yet. Anywhere but this place for sure!”

“We pulled it off, Mike. Can you believe the Governor and her lackeys really thought we might actually raise taxes? That’s not what the taxpayers of Oklahoma want, well … not the ones who are important anyway. They want the state agencies to tighten their belts, work more efficiently, and stamp out corruption. Drain the swamp, right?”

“Spot on, my friend!” Schulz exclaims.

Suddenly, McCall’s eyes fall on the now RED LIGHT ahead.

Schulz accelerates to pass him to avoid the signal.

Simultaneously, Governor Mary Fallin, as the front-seat passenger in a gray GMC Suburban, approaches the intersection from the west, gathering momentum.

Too late for the gentlemen to brake, she directs her driver to “goose it” and PLOWS into both vehicles, resulting in a CACOPHONY of wrenching metal, screaming tires and shattered glass.

McCall’s vehicle is flipped on its side, smoke pouring from under the hood, its tires still spinning wildly. Broken glass surrounds it like glistening seawater.

Schulz’s car spins several times until it rattles to rest like a slow-spinning coin. “What just happened?” he mumbles.

Astonishingly, both legislators are able to exit their vehicles without a scratch.

Did you see that?” McCall screams. “The light went from full green to RED with no yellow. How did that happen? We had no warning whatsoever.”

Well, it helps to know the director of the street maintenance department,” says a female voice behind them.

Recognizing the familiar voice, McCall and Schulz turn around to see the Suburban which had just rammed them, along with individual in the passenger seat.

What in the world are you doing, Governor? You completely blindsided us. I thought we agreed it was safe to leave town.

To which the Governor replied, “Sorry, boys. I changed my mind. Your work is not done.”

McCall picks up a loose hubcap and a mangled wiper blade from the wreckage at his feet. “This is an absolute mess, Mary! How do you expect us to put this back together?

“Figure it out,” Mary yells from her passenger window as her driver maneuvers around the pile of broken glass and metal in the middle of the road.

With that, the most recent Oklahoma Special Session came to a stumbling, gut-wrenching, collapsed-in-a-heap halt.

It’s not pretty at all. And this collision of political wills happened so suddenly and unexpectedly, it is going to take us all a moment to absorb the full aftermath.

Truly, what does the Governor’s crashing of this budget deal mean?

Will the Governor order another special session this year? If yes, what will change? The House and Senate couldn’t agree on a revenue deal during the regular session in May. They also couldn’t agree in September, or October, or November.

What makes anyone think they can find an agreement in December?

Will the legislators who voted NO to new revenues in House Bill 1054 suddenly have a change of heart and vote for a replacement bill just to get out of town? It would take persuading five more House members to make that happen.

Or, is it more likely the House and Senate will reconvene only to have leaders muster enough votes to override the Governor’s budget crashing veto?

Is it possible House Democrats flinch first and drop their demands for higher GPT and less reliance on regressive taxes? Or will recalcitrant House Republicans put aside their allegiance to Grover “No New Taxes” Norquist and decide to put the needs of Oklahomans first?

Is there any chance fiscal hawks in the legislature will abandon their well-honed narrative that Oklahoma agencies have more money than ever and are simply not serving as good stewards of taxpayer funds?

Will House and Senate leadership decide to push back against the Governor and just vote for a larger across the board cut for all agencies, possibly including public education?

Or, will legislative leaders finally acquiesce and work together across the aisle to identify some stable and recurring revenue sources? Why not? Wouldn’t it be nice to not fight this budget battle year after year?

I’m not sure anyone is certain what will happen over the next few weeks to clean up this collision of wills along North Lincoln Boulevard. It’s a budget wreck that was easy to see in advance. It didn’t need to happen and it must be fixed. Yet, time and patience are growing short.

It’s time to get back to work.

How Do You Like Them Apples?

If you are active in Oklahoma education policy discussions on social media, you are likely a follower of the Oklahoma Parents and Educators for Public Education Facebook Group, started by Edmond parent and public education champion, Angela Clark Little.

Last week, prior to the defeat of House Bill 1054, a critically important piece of legislation which would have allowed our state to avoid devastating budget cuts, provide raises for teachers and state employees, and restore the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers, Angela posted the following admonition on the group page.

“The admin of this group decided that with this vote being so important, anyone who votes no today will automatically be disqualified for an 🍎 in 2018. No exceptions.

The “apples” Angela refers to in her statement are “awarded” by the group to specific legislators who have demonstrated through word and action they are supportive of public education and teachers in our state. The intent of the label is to clearly identify those in the Oklahoma House and Senate whom the group should support with our endorsements, donations, and eventually, our votes.

In case you missed it, here are the final results from Wednesday’s important up or down vote:

First of all, I would be remiss in not acknowledging the 71% of House members who saw this bill as what it was – a last-ditch, best-chance opportunity to avoid serious cuts to state agencies while fulfilling a pledge to state workers for a long overdue pay raise – and voted YES. It is also worth noting that NONE of the Senate 🍎’s voted against the revenue raising measure that unfortunately failed in the House this week.

At the same time, as a result of their NO votes on HB 1054 last Wednesday, it is now apparent we have a few spoiled apples in the House barrel.

How ’bout them apples?

Relative to disgraced former House Minority Leader and political hypocrite, Scott Inman, one of his colleagues in the House, Rep. Roger Ford (HD 95), summed up Inman’s pathetic NO vote better than I ever could:

“… the coward that snuck in the back door, gave another representative a thumbs down motion to vote for him and immediately walked out the back door. To that young man, everything I learned about you this past year has turned out to be true. You took great joy at throwing stones at others, while you yourself (sic) was living in a glass house. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.”

Rep. Ford was definitely on a roll in his FB post, adding:

“To the republicans and democrats still so wrapped up in your party, that you didn’t see those sweet faces today, you know the ones hoping you would fight for them. Well congratulations to you. You are officially a politician, instead of a human being.”

While I am certain each of the other representatives has his reasons for withholding support of this legislation, the reality is it was the best deal on the table for Oklahoma’s beleaguered service agencies and public education. No plan will ever be perfect and able to satisfy everyone. Other than filling the budget hole from the rainy day and other one-time funds coupled with across-the-board funding cuts, there is not another viable plan that can garner the 3/4 super-majority needed to pass revenue bills.

But, hey, at least we avoided draconian tax increases on the oil and gas industry, right? Passage of this legislation was predicted to cost the O&G industry about 2.6 million in higher gross production taxes in FY-18 and $13 million in FY-19. Again, just to remind everyone, the projected portion of this revenue bill that would have directly impacted O&G over the next two fiscal years was $15.6 million out of a total of $595 million — a measly 2.6% of the total. 

It appears that being literally faced with hundreds of O&G supporters bused into the Capitol on Wednesday to fill the galleries along with the potential loss of important campaign donations, too many of our House members were willing to give up their apple.

Case in point: Representatives McBride and Rogers both voted yes on a previous version of the bill which did not include the Gross Production Tax. When the GPT was added, their votes turned sour.

It appears that oil and apples don’t mix.

Oh, and that $3,000 pay raise for teachers promised by some after the defeat of State Question 779 last November? I guess that’s likely to be added to the ever-growing pile of broken promises made to educators over the past decade.

With the failure of HB 1054, there is no consensus on what happens next. The path forward is very uncertain, though without new revenues being added to the pot, it appears certain that additional cuts to agencies and schools are on the horizon.

And reported by David Blatt at the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI), “House and Senate leadership are intensely divided on how to proceed, and there are acute conflicts between the parties and within the caucuses in the House especially. The clock is ticking louder as the December 1st effective date rapidly approaches for agency cuts — which include termination of the ADvantage waiver for individuals with severe disabilities, 9 percent rate cuts for most Medicaid providers, and elimination or stark reduction of outpatient services for those with mental illness and addiction.”

It doesn’t look good, especially as we look into the next legislative session when we will start with at least a $500M hole to fill. As Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Depew, argued during debate on Wednesday, “The cuts we’ll have to make out of special session won’t be terrible, but the cuts we’ll have to make next summer will be brutal.”

In short, it might be a bad season for apples next year.

Of course, in 2018, Oklahomans will once again have the opportunity to clean the legislature of this bad fruit.

But, really, and I ask this with all due earnest. Will we?

Will we still remember these names 12 months from now?

Will we recall how we felt after suffering this stinging disappointment?

Will we even still care or will we have moved to other distractions?

Speaking for myself, I pledge to not forget. I hope I am not alone.

Here’s what I hope our message is for each of the legislators who decided to vote NO last week when it mattered most for us.

We know who you are and we have your number.

How do you like them apples?

In Pursuit of Woozles

There’s a delightful old story about Winnie the Pooh and Piglet where they are hunting a Woozle.

As some of us well know, having read these classic Winnie-the-Pooh stories as children, Woozles are rather cunning creatures. They have an affinity to honey and are hard to identify by their tracks. Some of them inhabit the East Pole. And sometimes tracks on the ground may lead to a Woozle, but sometimes they don’t. It’s all rather complicated and serious, this business with the Woozles (and Heffalumps), and you really should read more about it in the books.

“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw-marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw-marks.”

The story “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle” appears in the third chapter of A.A. Milne’s original “Winnie-the-Pooh” novel.

In that story, Pooh finds tracks around a spinney of larch trees and begins to follow them. Piglet runs after Pooh and joins the hunt. The tracks seem to go around the spinney and soon Pooh and Piglet notice that there’s a new set of tracks alongside the first; another Woozle, perhaps!

As they brave onwards, they find that a third set of tracks has appeared next to the other two (might be a Wizzle), then a fourth (another Wizzle). Just imagine: two Woozles AND two Wizzles. It’s quite an adventure for Pooh and Piglet.

We know how this story ends, of course. Christopher Robin arrives to explain that they’ve been following their own tracks. This rather depresses Pooh for a moment, but Christopher Robin cheers Pooh up, as friends do, and it’s nearly lunch time anyway so all’s well.


As a metaphor, Pooh and Piglet tracking themselves in the snow thinking they are following a Woozle is similar to the modern-day expression, “chasing your tail”  – the condition of being busy doing a lot of things but actually achieving very little.

It is difficult to think of a better analogy for the modern test-based accountability system which has driven American school reform initiatives for the past three decades than “Chasing a Woozle.”

We have expended tremendous time and resources with very little to show for our efforts.

We all remember the publicity around the push for national common core academic standards (CCSS). The goal of the CCSS initiative was to establish consistent educational standards across the states as well as ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to enter credit-bearing courses at two or four-year college programs or to enter the workforce (“college- and career-ready”).

Since their release of the CCSS in 2010, forty-two of the fifty states have adopted the standards as their own. Oklahoma was one of the eight states (joining Texas, Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Indiana, South Carolina, and Minnesota) which chose to develop their own college- and career-ready standards.

Our newly standards were initially titled: Oklahoma’s Incredible, Super Duper Rigorous, World Class, Grade A, Best Standards EVER. While that has a nice ring to it, the resulting acronym (OISDRWCGABSE) was deemed too long and shortened to simply the Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS).

As you know, our state also developed spectacular new assessments which, we are told, when combined with the new, more difficult academic standards, will reduce the achievement gap and ensure all future Oklahoma students are ready to compete in the fast-changing 21st century workforce.

Of course they will.

“Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

Every student in America graduating from high school today has experienced nothing but the test, rank, and punish system spawned by NCLB in 2001. So, surely after nearly two decades of efforts and billions of dollars spent on new standards and “better” assessments, our country will have found the elusive Woozles of lowered achievement gaps and higher college readiness percentages by now.

Uh, nope. Still no Woozles.

Recently released results from the 2017 ACT, the nation’s most widely used college admission test, highlight in detail the persistent achievement gaps between students who face disadvantages and those who don’t.

“Scores from the ACT show that just 9 percent of students in the class of 2017 who came from low-income families, whose parents did not go to college, and who identify as black, Hispanic, American Indian or Pacific Islander are strongly ready for college.

But the readiness rate for students with none of those demographic characteristics was six times as high, 54 percent, according to data released Thursday.

‘That kind of shocked us,’ ACT chief executive Marten Roorda said. ‘We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know it was this bad.’

We didn’t know it was this bad, really, Marten? Where have you been for the last 15 years?

Despite two decades of test-based reforms, the ACT results seem to show the BILLIONS of dollars we have spent chasing test scores has been essentially for naught!

Isn’t it time for a modern-day Christopher Robin to emerge from the woods to tell us we’ve spent a generation walking in circles?

Subjecting millions of American children to a regime of test, rank, sort and punish has simply turned many of our public schools— particularly in urban areas— into joyless, drill-and-kill test factories completely disassociated from real learning and the development of meaningful employment skills.

“Fanaticism consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” ~George Santayana

We have lost sight of the true aim of public education. By focusing so narrowly on test-based measures, we ignore the myriad and diverse ways that children learn, grow, and develop.

Instead of redoubling our efforts on the futile and meaningless chase for higher test scores, how about we abandon those failed efforts and try something different?

At some point, don’t we need to acknowledge that standardized tests are far from meaningful measures of the potential of young human beings, because these unique children are far from standardized. They never will be, nor should we want them to be.

As Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “What we need is an educational system that brings children with all combinations of assets and deficits to adulthood having identified things they enjoy doing and having learned how to do them well.”

It is time to change our thinking, as well as our approaches for educating the wide variety of children who attend our schools, now and in the future.

Instead of continuing the fruitless pursuit of the Woozles surrounding test-based accountability, let’s gather to consider these broad questions:

  1. What does it mean to be an educated person in the 21st century?
  2. How will this definition continue to change throughout the lifetimes of children in school today?
  3. What does “career-ready” really mean for students projected to graduate from school in 2030 and beyond?
  4. What should be the central purpose of our public education system?
  5. How do we redesign and/or re-image our education system to better meet the needs (and address the strengths) of ALL students?

Of course, these are no easy answers to these questions. Tough problems are rarely solved with simple solutions. Yet, taking our attention off our own footprints in the snow might lead us to a new path. A journey which will recognize our collective strengths while confronting our own inadequacies as schools and education professionals.

It has to be better than spending any more time walking aimlessly in the woods, following footprints that lead to nowhere new.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Earlier this year, US Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell unintentionally gave rise to a new rally cry for women’s rights activists.

While attempting to defend his actions in shutting down Senator Elizabeth Warren’s speech against the appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions to the Attorney General position in the Trump administration, McConnell explained: “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

As you might expect, this quote quickly went viral on social media.

This phrase could also serve as an apothegm for generations of undervalued and under-regarded female teachers in America.

As we celebrate another Labor Day this year, we must continue to persist in acknowledging the vital role women play in educating the future of America and commit ourselves to lifting all women up economically.

We must persist in reminding policymakers we must end the era of trying to educate our children on the cheap by exploiting a workforce of devoted, highly educated women.

We must persist in changing the false perception among some that teaching is just a step above babysitting, especially in the earlier grades. Spend a day in a kindergarten classroom – you will be quickly enlightened to the folly of this narrative.

Is it a coincidence that teaching, a mostly female profession, is often perceived as low to mid-skill work, confers little social status, and pays poorly?

We know as many as 76% of public school teachers are women, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Earlier grade levels are even more dominated by female teachers — 87% of primary school teachers are women. The gender makeup of teachers begins to even out in high school, as 42% of high school teachers are male, but the majority are still women.

The same survey also reveals that as much as 56% of these female teachers had a master’s or higher degree.

Considering teaching’s legacy as “women’s work” (read: underpaid, unskilled, and disrespected), and the ways that has influenced how schools today are structured — as well as who makes decisions, and how teachers are undervalued — it’s a wonder that we don’t have more of a teacher shortage than we currently do.

A major change in the past few decades is that, as the number of variety of jobs open to women working outside the home has increased, more teachers are now able to leave the profession for greener pastures; in fact, an estimated 40-50% of teachers leave in their first five years.

The lack of trust many have for teachers is also a product of the school system’s roots. While teachers around the turn of the century were highly educated compared to other workers, having usually completed high school — and often post-secondary training — at a time when most jobs didn’t require more than cursory schooling, they were not allowed to dictate curriculum or methods.

Today’s teachers, who hold Master’s degrees and regularly complete required professional development, have many mandates and relatively little input when it comes to what and how they teach.

And, of course, lack of compensation has always been an issue in teaching and continues to this day.

Well into the 1950s, teaching was one of the few professions open to women. The fact that it was a labor force largely made up of women, who ostensibly were not providing for a family, allowed many to justify the low pay despite the fact that most of these teachers could not afford to support even themselves alone as the cost of living rose.

Historically, women were also thought to be suited to teaching because they were seen as born nurturers, naturally inclined to keep their students and the good of the school as their first priority.

Therein lies the crux of the issue – that women are expected to do the job out of love for children and/or biology.  This mentality still informs how we think about teachers in the present. Just as mothers are not supposed to complain about their children or the hard work of parenting, teachers are not supposed to complain about their jobs. They do it for the children, right?

Therefore, when teachers protest poor pay, inadequate working conditions or excessive top-down mandates  – especially if they threaten to strike or hold a rally at the State Capitol, teachers are criticized as “selfish” or said to be “punishing” our students.

Teaching isn’t charity work. It’s a job. But because it is a profession dominated by women, and teaching is often viewed as a caretaking role, some view teachers who stand up for their labor rights as selfish. And some still view the profession itself as unworthy of the value and support it’s always deserved.

But it should never be viewed as selfish or unacceptable for professionals to advocate for better working conditions and fair pay for themselves.

When teaching is seen as “women’s work,” it is disrespected and undervalued. There are many problems in our education system, and like other problems — unequal access, institutional racism — the deliberate undervaluing of an entire profession viewed as one belonging to women is not one that can be solved with a new academic standards, curriculum, or more standardized testing.

Sure, the rights of female teachers have come a long way since school leaders dictated things like when they could visit ice cream stores or get married.  However, efforts must continue to ensure all teachers are appropriately respected and compensated for the hard work they do.

For the sake of our schools and our children, we need to persist in valuing our teachers, just as we need to value women’s leadership and advocacy, and work to undo decades of educational policy built on a foundation of sexism.

And, as teachers have learned, this may routinely call for lengthy speeches, violating a few rules from time to time,  ignoring warnings to “quiet down,” avoiding explanations for why advocacy is hurting “our cause,” and persisting, nevertheless.

A Simple Request

Dear Friend,

I have a simple request. I am in the midst of a moral dilemma and could use your reassurance. My conscience has been bothering me for a while and this problem does not seem to be going away on its own.

Please hear me out.

This week, two five-year-old boys will enter kindergarten at a local elementary school. Regrettably, that is about all they will have in common.

Months before the first boy was born, his fragile brain and body were exposed to a toxic daily brew of lead, nicotine, carbon monoxide, alcohol, and THC through his mother’s bloodstream. Due to his mother’s food insecurity, his nourishment in the womb was derived primarily from high calorie fast food and sugary snacks. His mother’s only visit to a doctor prior to his birth was at six months, just two weeks before he was born prematurely at three pounds, nine ounces. The boy spent two additional weeks on an incubator at the hospital to allow his lungs to develop and his small body to add weight.

For the first year of this boy’s life, he was largely confined to a car seat or small playpen a few feet from a television in the corner of his mother’s small section 8 apartment. His mother was only 17-years-old when he arrived and she had already dropped out of high school. His father has no idea he even exists. After the first few weeks, the boy was rarely held or cuddled. His mother worked irregular hours at a local convenience store in order to pay the rent and he was left with neighbors or one of his mom’s “revolving-door” boyfriends for long periods of time. The boy obtained most of his daily subsistence through government-supplied baby formula or sugary fruit drinks from a bottle balanced on a pillow in his crib. He grew accustomed to loud, startling noises: the rumbling exhaust and stereo sounds of neighborhood cars, the angry curses of adults, occasional gunshots and screams from the streets, and the blaring of televisions and stereo speakers through the thin walls of his mother’s apartment. The boy got very good at crying himself to sleep.

This boy celebrated his fifth birthday in a DHS shelter after being removed from his mother’s custody due to a third report of abuse and neglect. When he was brought to the hospital, his blood sample contained dangerous levels of methamphetamine. He had already spent nine months of his short life in transient shelters and therapeutic foster homes. His most recent placement lasted only two weeks due to his volatile and destructive behaviors. He spends most of his days watching television or playing games on the computer in the shelter. Out of survival, the boy has become an accomplished liar and thief. He is angry and mean to other children. He also goes to sleep hungry most nights.

He will arrive at kindergarten next week having never traveled outside his city; having never played a board game with an adult; having never ridden a bike; having never visited a museum; having never attended preschool; having not yet learned his letters and numbers; having never gone to church; having never had a sibling or best friend; having never swam in a pool; having never been on a T-ball team; having never read a book, and having never been told “I love you” by anyone who really mattered.

In contrast, the second boy was born full-term, healthy and strong at over eight pounds. His body was nourished throughout his mother’s pregnancy through a regular intake of nutritious foods and prenatal vitamins. His first year of life was filled with love and laughter. This boy was doted on constantly by his stay-at-home mother, his devoted father, and a large group of family friends and extended family. He was routinely soothed, hugged, kissed, smiled at, sang to, read with, and loved on by his parents and grandparents. His large suburban home is quiet, secure, and filled with happy sounds. His young body and mind are enriched daily by high quality foods, fun physical activity, soothing music, and calming voices.

This boy celebrated his fifth birthday at Disneyland with his parents and older siblings. In his first few years, he has traveled to the Florida coast to play in the ocean; to Washington, D.C. to visit the monuments, and to New York City to watch a Yankees game. This was in addition to numerous weekend trips to his family’s lake house for camping and boating. He cannot recall ever going to sleep hungry or feeling unsafe or unloved.

This boy will arrive at kindergarten next week having already learned to write his entire alphabet and a few simple sentences; knowing how to add and subtract numbers; knowing how to pray; knowing how to play simple tunes on a piano; knowing how to ski down the bunny slope; having visited the zoo, the public library and every museum in his town; having a half-dozen close friends, and having been told “I love you” every single night of his life by the most important people in his world.

These two boys are from backgrounds as different as can be. One will come to school self-confident, trusting of adults, and fully ready to learn. By the end of kindergarten, some of the words he will hear adults use when describing him are “gifted,” “bright,” “beautiful,” and a “joy to teach.”

The other boy will come to school desperate for love and attention but lacking the skills to be socially and academic successful. The words he will hear to describe him are “lazy,” “delayed,” “mischievous,” “lacking attention,” and “dishonest.”

Yet, at the end of kindergarten we will expect both boys to be well-behaved, get along with others, and to love learning.

We both know that won’t happen with the way things are now.

So, my friend, here is where you come in. I need to hear your soothing words.

A lot of people tell me I should do more to help. But I really don’t want to. So, I am asking you to let me off the hook. This situation is NOT my problem. While it is sad and unfortunate, I cannot be expected to try to fix every ill of society.

I can’t serve as a parent for every child. Some kids are just born lucky; others not so much. That’s just life.

So, please reassure me that this unloved child will be just fine. Tell me he just needs to move beyond his past, stop making excuses, and work on developing a growth mindset. If he would toughen up a little, get a little grit, learn to behave himself, and buckle down and get to work, he can do just as well in school as anyone else. You agree with me, don’t you?

I need you to remind me again this nation was founded on the ideal of equal opportunity for all, NOT equal outcomes. Hard work and responsible living matters. It’s not my job to make life fair. If we started giving extra help to all poor families, that would be the same as socialism, right? That’s not what our Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote our Constitution.

I need to hear how helping these children now will create an entitlement mentality for another generation. How this boy will grow up expecting more and more handouts from me. How he will just become dependent on the government and not want to work for a living.

Please whisper in my ear that is perfectly okay that the wealthiest 1% of Americans possess 40% of the nation’s wealth and that this group’s wealth is greater than the bottom 90% of our citizens. Tell me it is fine that 95% of the income growth since 2009 has gone to the top one percent of Americans. Tell me there is nothing wrong with the net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals exceeding the net worth of half of all American households. Remind me it is capitalism at its best when the average employee needs to work more than a month to earn what the average CEO earns in an hour. That’s all good, right?

Here’s the truth – I don’t want this to be MY problem.

I have tried to help for decades but it never seems to be enough. Why are “these” people so needy and greedy? It’s time to let me off the hook and just let everyone fight for what they get.

Why should wealthy people have to suffer to help people who make bad life decisions? These are natural consequences for poor behavior. Kids will always suffer for the irresponsible decisions of their parents. Who am I to intervene?

I have too many bills to pay as it is. I have a huge military to run. I have dozens of other nations around the world to send money to. I need to promote economic growth by giving out tax breaks and incentives to corporations and wealthy people. Plus, my economists tell me the money will eventually trickle down to those on the bottom if we just let the system work. I just need to get out of the way.

Let’s be real. I honestly don’t have any more money. I am already deeply in debt and the people certainly don’t want to pay more of their hard-earned wages to do what seems necessary to solve this complex problem.

People just need to get off my back.

Say it with me. He’s not my problem. He’s NOT my problem. HE‘S NOT MY PROBLEM!

There. I feel better now. Thank you for helping to ease my conscience. It’s going to be okay. I can sleep soundly now.

Yours truly,


Consciously Ignorant

It’s been said that real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. I suppose that makes me pretty knowledgeable. I am quick to admit that I am ignorant on far more topics than I will ever be able to claim expertise.

After 56 years traveling through space on this big blue ball with billions of other human beings, I have come to recognize my personal world view and relatively minuscule life experiences can inadvertently cloud my understanding of how and what other people might think.

Just ask my wife.

None of us will ever see the world exactly alike because no two of us have seen and experienced the same things in the same way.

For that reason, I strive to keep my mind open to new ideas and perspectives. I read and study opposing points of view to be informed rather than merely opinionated. I am careful with my words and thoughts so as to not offend out of ignorance.

On those few occasions when I have been confronted by someone for behaving in a manner that is perceived as rude or even potentially racist, I will typically respond with a comment along the lines of: “You may be right. If I said something to insult or offend you, it was not my intent. I apologize. So that I can better understand your point of view, can you help me understand why my words or actions upset you?”

While saying something like this does help to defuse the situation and make our future conversation more positive, my true intent is to learn from the other person.

So, where am I going with this?

As I read an article in this morning’s Tulsa World reflecting on this past weekend’s ugly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was struck by a comment made by a Tulsa teacher, Nate Morris.

Speaking to an audience of about a hundred at a vigil at John Hope Reconciliation Park on Saturday, Morris told audience members to not be swayed by images telling them that’s what racism looks like. It’s more complicated than that, he said.

“While racism donned hoods, waved Nazi flags and ultimately killed someone in Virginia, it can appear in many forms.”

“Racism, systemic racism, implicit biases, these things don’t just look like hoods and capes and flags and fire. They exist in the statement of, ‘Oh you teach where? That must be really hard. I’d never send my kids there,’ or, ‘no, I’ve never been to that part of town. It’s too dangerous.’

He might be right.

While I don’t know where the lines between overt racism and bias and just sheer ignorance are drawn, I had not typically viewed comments like these as potentially harmful. But I understand how they can be interpreted differently by someone viewing them from the other direction.

I regret to say I am guilty of making comments similar to this, even after teaching two years in a Tulsa middle school twenty years ago. Particularly in light of my previous experience working with students from poverty, I know I need to be more conscious of the implications of my thoughts and words.

We all do.

When we talk about the challenges of teaching in urban schools, are we referring to the challenge of educating children from generational poverty in under-resourced communities, or are making inferences about children and their families based on their color, race, or ethnicity?

How often do we make faulty judgments about kids based on gross generalizations: “Asian children are good at math,” “black children are athletic,” “boys are better at science and STEM subjects than girls,” or, even worse, “certain groups of children are lazy?”

We can also falsely ascribe certain harmful characteristics to the parents of children in urban schools – that they are inattentive and lazy, don’t value education, have poor parenting skills, are substance abusers, or don’t care what their kids are doing.

We also unfairly label urban schools collectively as chaotic, dangerous, or dysfunctional – even when many are doing an exemplary job taking care of their students.

A good number of us really don’t understand what it is like to grow up, or to be a parent, or to teach under some of these very complex and challenging conditions. We have also become comfortable in our society rejecting anything we do not understand.

A long history of psycho-social research details the human tendency to imagine our own social and cultural groups as diverse while we imagine “the others,” people belonging to a social or cultural group with which we are less familiar, as being, for all intents and purposes, all the same. Then all it takes are one or two examples to validate or confirm our bias and we deem it true.

And, yes, we often do it out of ignorance. That doesn’t make it okay. The recipe for perpetual ignorance is to be satisfied with one’s opinions and content only with our own knowledge. We are responsible to society to do something to make ourselves less ignorant and better informed.

So, no matter where we stand on our ignorance about race, ethnicity, gender…etc., we can ALL move forward. And, in my humble opinion, if we are to stay united as a free nation, we MUST move forward.

Let me share an imperfect comparison.

In psychology, there is learning model called the four stages of competence, which details the psychological states of people involved in progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

The lowest level of achieving competence is stage one, which is unconsciously incompetent (“I don’t know that I don’t know it.”)

This progresses to stage two, consciously incompetent (I am now aware of what I don’t know), then stage three, consciously competent (I can do the “task” but have to think about it), and finally stage four, unconsciously competent (It’s second nature. I can do it and don’t even think about it. Examples include throwing a football, riding a bike or tying your shoes.)

Adapting this model for my personal ignorance about racial issues, I hope that I have matured my way to stage three, consciously competent or perhaps consciously ignorant. I work hard to be unbiased and not judge others based on physical characteristics and life circumstances.

But I will always have room to grow. The capacity to think without racial or ethnic bias interfering with my opinions may never be as easy as riding a bike or tying my shoes, though I wish it was.

When interacting with people from different backgrounds, I may always have to consciously think about what I say and how I say it.

Being consciously ignorant means I know what racism and bigotry and hatred look like. Therefore, I have no excuse for racist or intolerant behavior on my part. In more colorful terms, if I choose to be a pig, I will be keenly aware of my own stench.

It is also important to note – particularly in light of this weekend’s event in Virginia – that this mentality extends to what I choose NOT to say as well. Because silence in the face of bigotry and intolerance is sometimes just as damning.

Let’s not try to fool each other. Racism is alive and well in America. To say otherwise would be ignorant of reality. Sometimes it is subtle and unintentional like the examples cited above. Other times it reveals itself as a group of white men parading swastikas, burning torches, and making Nazi hand symbols. Anyhow it reveals itself, it is a stain on our nation.

The actions and attitudes of white supremacists in Virginia last weekend is repulsive and cannot be condoned. Bigotry and racism are an anathema to the words and intent of our Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Here’s something I am not ignorant about – racism has no place in America. In any direction. It never has and never will.

I don’t mind differences of opinion. I do mind hate.

I can’t always change others but I can change myself. In that respect, I REFUSE to allow anyone’s ignorance, hate, drama, or negativity stop me from being the best person I can be.

Including my own.