Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Thursday is Thanksgiving and Sunday is the beginning of Advent.  This just seemed to fit:

Two quick stories:

1.  We had our first snowfall of the season earlier this week.  Not a lot of accumulation- but sideways snow, lots of car accidents, shoveling, and tough walking from the car to the front door.

I was shoveling here at school- and grumbling a little to myself- when I witnessed something that changed all that.  A physically disabled person pulled up, and I watched- partially to see if they needed help, and partially in amazement- as they slowly and deliberately, in the driving snow and cold, moved around the van, lowered the scooter, and made their way past me and into the school.

It took almost ten minutes.  Scooted past me with a huge smile and a "Good Morning." 


2.  We had an 8th grader here last year who was very much on the edge.  This student endured more adversity in a year than many of us have faced in our entire lives.  On several occasions, his future truly hung in the balance.  People went out of their way to help and intervene.

He has since moved a couple of hours away and is in a much better situation.  He has stayed in touch, but today he paid us a special visit.  He is doing extremely well. 

Every once in a while, we get the opportunity to truly be a difference.  Truly.  So proud of him, and so thankful of those here who gave so freely to help him through the adversity.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Vouchers and Accountability

Senator Grothman claims that private schools should not have to divulge student performance data, because they haven't in the past.  He is partially right.  Private schools shouldn't have to divulge any performance data to the general public- if they aren't taking any voucher money.  But, of course, that's exactly the key point Senator Grothman is overlooking.

His comment is disingenuous.  He was an outspoken advocate of public monies being used to fund private school vouchers.  He knows very well that the current situation is very different from the historical one.

I agree with Senator Olsen.  If a school is taking public money, then it absolutely must be accountable for whatever performance measures the state is imposing.

I'm no fan of the current report card grading system, but it is what it is.  Senator Grothman and like minded politicians gave us the voucher system and they gave us the report card system.  Fair enough.  What isn't fair is one set of rules for one publicly funded group and a different set of rules for another group also using public money.

Senator Grothman and his cronies need to stop protecting private voucher schools and make them step up and be accountable.  A private school can decide to participate in the voucher program, or not.  If a private school wants to participate in the voucher program, then that means that they are accepting public monies.  If they accept the money, then they should be accountable for student performance.  Period. 

People of good faith can have different political views.  This disagreement isn't political.  This is about being consistent.  It is hypocritical to demand that public schools face multiple forms of accountability, while voucher schools face none.

Good luck to Senator Olsen and anyone else, of either party, pushing for accountability for voucher schools.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

How about asking them??

Education seems to be in a constant state of "reform."  Urban education, especially, is buffeted by a never ending series of reform efforts.  Large scale.  Small scale.  Everything from "Going back to basics" to "21st Century" and all points in between.

I recently attended a meeting with area legislators where, as always, someone brings up the Milwaukee Public Schools.  Also, on cue, there is a collective throwing up of the hands and cries of "what can we do about that mess?"  And- "We're spending all this money but getting no results." 

I'm reading Creative Confidence, by Tom and David Kelley.  The talk of an example of one of the groups immersed in a project at the .school at Stanford.  This group decided to take on the problem of infant mortality- especially in low weight babies in underdeveloped areas of the world.  Primary cause of death?  Hypothermia.

The team visited hospitals in the area and found, much to their surprise, plenty of unused incubators.  The problem was not a design flaw with the incubators, or access in the general area.  The problem was that most births occurred in villages a few miles away- with little or no access to the hospital in the those precious first few hours.  The battle for life was occurring in local homes, not hospitals.

This visit led to the initial reframing of the problem- from one of improving hospital incubators to designing a bay-warming device for people in remote areas. 

They took the initial prototype to India and began the conversation with the locals- which led to the discovery of a number of cultural factors that continued to impact subsequent iterations of the design.

In the end, they came up with something that is already saving thousands of lives.

They got there by listening.  They did the listening in the local remote villages. They uncovered cultural things, large and small, some quite subtle, that were crucial to the final design.  The final design had to be what it was in order for it to work.

They got there by listening.

Educational reformers tend to be politicians looking to make a national name for themselves, or wealthy businessmen looking to leave a legacy.  They get to where they are by talking.

I don't have any great reform solutions for large urban districts.  But I do have one thought- maybe it's time for the politicians and the wealthy businessmen to shut up and start listening.

Monday, November 4, 2013


I'm reading The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown.  Ostensibly, it's about the 1936 Olympic Gold Medal winning Rowing Team from the University of Washington.  In the process of telling the story, one gets a first hand look into life in America during that era. 


I taught US history for 10 years.  I've heard Depression Era stories before.  And yet, accounts like this one continue to cut me to the core.  I like to think I know a thing or two about toughness.  Nope.  About giving an effort.  Nope.  About what it means to struggle.  Nope.  About what it means to persevere through tough times.  Nope. 

The examples I can draw from my life pale to nothing when juxtaposed with those faced by millions of Americans during the Great Depression- and countless others throughout the course of human history.

By detailing the upbringing of a couple of the "boys in the boat," the author brings home the incredible hurdles they had to overcome just to live- to say nothing of the effort required to overcome those hurdles and also compete at the highest levels of a demanding sport.

As bad as day to day life was, that wasn't the worst thing about the Depression.  The worst thing was the absence of hope.  As the days and years ticked by, many people abandoned any hope that things would ever get better.  And who can blame them?  The daily hardscrabble life is one thing, but an absence of hope destroys people.

Even knowing that going in, I was jarred by the poignant way Brown tells the story.  I've always been amazed by stories of people who managed to keep hope alive in the face of seemingly hopeless situations- from rugged explorers like Earnest Shakleton to WWII POWs like Louis Zamperini.  While those types of stories are truly incredible, at least those people were trained to face hardships and in situations where danger and death were constant companions.

It's different when those conditions are faced by millions of average folks.  Just ordinary people playing by the rules and trying to get by.   

So, how can I have the same level of toughness as a person who endured the Great Depression, without having to go through a traumatic experience?  I can't, and that's OK.  I just can't fool myself into thinking I'm tougher than I really am, or that my problems are bigger than they really are. 

I've never faced a situation that was truly hopeless- so I lack the scars and the toughness and the resiliency that can only be forged in the midst of true desperation.  Challenges?  Yes.  Difficulties?  Sure.  Hopelessness?  No. 

Several of the books I've been reading offer variations on the same theme.  That is: Obstacles suck, and yet those that face and overcome them are often the ones destined for greatness.  They are forced to be creative and tough and resilient in ways that the rest of us just aren't.

I've got a few obstacles staring at me right now- time to go chop 'em down to size and find a way.