Archive for September, 2016

Change the Times

September 25, 2016 2 comments

In my rare downtime, I have been rediscovering some of the music of my youth. I guess I should point out, though, that some of it is actually the music of my parents’ youth.

A few weeks ago, my wife and daughter bought me a record player for my birthday. I immediately went to the garage, pulled out the crate of records so that the teenager could mock us.

It’s one red milk-style crate, and it’s packed very tightly with our vinyl. It’s also a musical catalog frozen in time at about 1990, which was the last time either of us bought a record. It has everything from Led Zeppelin to Grandmaster Flash to Rush and the Thompson Twins. It may or may not even have Urban Chipmunk.

born-in-the-usanot-val-kilmercarlinseriously-this-one-was-hers-not-mineSurprisingly, everything I’ve played out of the crate has still sounded good. Even better, most of what my 16-going-on-17 daughter has pulled out to sample, she has loved. Billy Joel. The Doors. The Beatles. Fleetwood Mac. These aren’t entirely new friends for her; she’s been subjected to my tastes in
the car for years now.

I know that she likes some of my old music. I just didn’t know how much. For example, she thought the double album soundtrack from the movie Amadeus was pretty cool. (So did my high school students back in the day when I would play it for them. Or so they told me.)rock-me-amadeus

I also didn’t know she’d like Bob Dylan. That was a happy surprise.

I found myself home alone today for a while cleaning and doing laundry while watching football. I decided that rather than listen to the announcers, I would listen to Bob Dylan. I’ve had this greatest hits album since I was in high school, but the songs are from when my parents were teenagers. I love every song on the record, and I even went to see Dylan play at the Zoo Amphitheater in Oklahoma City back in college. He mostly played new stuff, which isn’t what any of us were there to hear. He closed with a 15 minute version of Like a Rolling Stone, though, and it was fabulous.

dylanI don’t know why I haven’t upgraded most of what I own on record to my iTunes library. I guess it’s just one of those things that slips your mind. Because of that, and because I haven’t had a working record player for a while, I haven’t really thought about the words to some of my favorite songs for a while, either.

The words to The Times They Are a Changin’ really stuck with me today. We’re dealing with so much pain in this country, for so many reasons. I see people posting simplistic solutions to those problems on social media or explaining away injustice. It’s something that Dylan discussed more than 50 years ago:

Come gather ’round people where ever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone,
For the times they are a’ changin’!

One thing the song made me remember is the faux documentary Bob Roberts, which also came out when I was in college. It starred Tim Robbins as a conservative folk-singing politician who was also something of a demagogue. Something about life imitating art comes to mind. He actually had a song in the movie called Times are Changin’ Back. It’s a brilliant movie, if you haven’t seen it.

bob roberts.jpg

Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon for the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a’ changin’!

The song is a warning to us. During the 60s, Dylan was mostly writing about Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. Yes, so much has changed. Still, we’ve clearly not solved all those problems.

Come senators, congressmen please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a’ changin’!

I was born in 1970, so I missed all of the window rattling. All I have now are man-made earthquakes. My knowledge of the era is historical; surely it contains major gaps. Dylan is imploring those of us in positions of power either to lead the social changes that are coming or get out of the way.

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a’ changin’!

I used to use the second line of the verse above as a writing prompt for my students. They came up with great examples of how their parents and teachers (including me) didn’t grasp how the world had changed. And no, I never asked them to write about the third line. I wasn’t trying to create rebellion at home.

What I was really going for was that students would have an understanding that teen frustration at adults is timeless and universal. Surely they got that, right?

The line it is drawn the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a’ changin’!

It’s a great song. It’s a fascinating era, and one in which I sometimes imagine I would have been a better fit. We really have come a long way since the 60s in terms of how we deal with race and poverty as a country. We just haven’t come far enough. Nor can we stop.

Another Dylan song on the album made me stop in my tracks at one point. I won’t post the whole song here, but the second verse of Blowin’ in the Wind contains several lines we need to remember:

Yes, and how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, and how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

When I see #blacklivesmatter protests, I just wonder how many times some of us can turn our heads and pretend that we just don’t see. I’m a white guy who grew up in a suburban household that had two adults with advanced degrees. All four of the children who grew up there graduated from college, three with doctorate degrees.

I have a bad habit of driving with a sense of urgency. I frequently get to visit with members of the law enforcement community. I’m always treated well.

The truth is that most police officers treat all people well. Those who work in diverse communities understand that having good relationships with all people is one of the best ways to help them do their jobs effectively.

I can acknowledge that and still sympathize with those among us who don’t feel that their lives and voices are as important. I know my background. I also know my limitations. Just because it’s not my pain doesn’t mean I don’t feel the hurt. Nor am I in any position to tell any member of any group how to feel.

I just can’t turn my head and pretend I don’t see anything.

Another Education Finance Tool

September 20, 2016 Comments off

Yesterday, I wrote about a short video made by Shannon Meeks from Putnam City. Today I want to point you towards a data tool created by the Oklahoma Policy Institute:

It’s well known that state aid funding in Oklahoma has struggled in recent years — since 2008 we’ve cut per student state aid by 24.2 percent after inflation, the largest drop in the U.S. Cuts to state aid affect all school districts in the state, but not all districts are affected equally. Because state aid to local districts is based on a formula that takes into account the needs of students and the local resources of districts to fund themselves, the amount per student that’s funded by the state varies widely between districts. In the 2015-2016 school year, aid went from a low of $16 to a high of $7,740 per student.

The map below is from their website. Before discussing the nuances of school finance, I want to make a couple of generalizations first.


Source: Oklahoma Policy Institute

One is that southeast Oklahoma tends to get more state aid per pupil than northwest Oklahoma. Poverty and property values are the main reasons why. The other observation is that school districts in northwest Oklahoma tend to cover more land. This part of the state is more sparsely populated, but it’s also flatter. There are some long bus routes, but they tend to be pretty straight.

I point these two things out because we must always understand that there is not one singular picture of a school district in Oklahoma. For that matter, there’s not one singular picture of a school in my district.

If you want to look at the figures more closely, or if you want to see how certain school districts compare to one another, you should visit the interactive map. You may even want to download the data file.

These are real numbers. Any discussion of issues such as vouchers, consolidation, and charter schools should include these figures.

Oh, that reminds me. Here’s the OPI caveat about charters:

[Note: The map does not include charter schools, which tend to receive higher state aid because they have no local revenues. Charter school state aid can be found in the full data set.]

Knowledge is power, people.

State Aid for Schools (ft. Charters)

September 19, 2016 1 comment

Sometimes, I get random questions from the long-time listener, first-time caller kind of person who wants to know why I’m so down on charter schools.

I’m not. I have probably written fewer than 10 posts (out of nearly 700) that even address charters. When I do, I don’t focus on their funding. I don’t call out their effectiveness. I merely point out that charter schools are no more effective, according to accountability models that I reject anyway, than traditional public schools.

My position has always been that if you teach kids, I hope you do a good job. When it comes to funding and accountability, you didn’t set up the rules, and neither did I. I have friends who work in charter schools, and I have had graduate students who teach in them.

state-aid-happy-face-big-bucksCharters can have narrow purposes. They can have parental involvement agreements that scare off some families. Still, they are public-ish schools serving public school kids.

They way they receive funding, however, has always been hard for me to explain. That’s why I’m glad I’m not the only person in this state who can explain things.

The video below, which is 11 minutes long and worth every second, provides a better, and more user friendly, explanation of state aid than I have ever seen. It also touches upon how state per pupil funding allocations give charter schools an advantage.

I’ll limit my remarks and let you watch and enjoy the video.

Not Pictured

September 14, 2016 1 comment

Being a superintendent is essentially a three-part job: supporting students and teachers; community engagement; and managing the district’s resources and people. My time isn’t spent equally among these three priorities. Neither is my interest.

I don’t spend nearly enough time in schools and at activities. I try, but I don’t make it to all of the events on my schedule. Meetings and decision-making get in the way. Still, the time I get to be around kids is what feeds my soul and informs my work.

During the first few weeks of the school year, we’ve had ball games, fun activities at schools, and countless memories made. Several of those have come this week, both in the schools, and at community events.

At one event that received a decent amount of publicity, I had the privilege of watching a group of very young children listening to celebrities read them a book. Two students, both five years old, sat at the back of the room with one of our staff members. Those with cameras knew that we couldn’t photograph these children.

They laughed and smiled. They listened intently. Well, when they weren’t clinging to the staff member’s neck, they listened intently.

not-picturedSome students come to us with with labels that say, “Handle with Care.” They may have health problems or family issues that impact their time at school. Some come to us with instructions that say, “Do not Photograph.” Some of these are students who just have protective parents, which is fine. Others, sadly, have DHS case numbers, including many in foster care.

Whether they’re tiny, as these two were, or they’re teens, as are many I’ve known through the years, the stories are often just tragic. I remember once as a principal reading the permanent record of a foster child new to our school and having to shut the door to my office and compose myself. I don’t remember how many schools this student had attended (or not attended). I just wanted to make our school the best school for her.

Back to this week: I’ve seen so many pictures from this event. The organizers even asked me to be in some of them, which was nice. Not pictured, though were these two little girls.

While the other students were asking the celebrities questions and trying to get their attention, the two girls at the back of the room just wanted anyone’s attention. One in particular was clinging to an adult who was standing towards the end of the event when I walked over to say hi.

She reached out quickly and grabbed the front of my hair, and she laughed.

“Does that feel funny to you?” I asked.

“No, it’s fancy. And haaayaandsome.”

And you know what, most days, that’s way better than what people say to me. I’ll take fancy and handsome any day.

She laughed again and moved on to the next adult. I’d show you a picture of how happy she looked, but again, I can’t.

I don’t know her back story, and I didn’t ask. Some days, I’m happy not to know that much detail about some of our kids.

I’ll also probably never know her STAR reading level. If she stays with us throughout her school-age years, I probably won’t know her grade point average.

Come to think of it, if she stays with us for 13 years, she’d be a major outlier. That’s just not what happens to the majority of students in the foster care system. To verify what I perceive to be true, I looked up some data from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

From July 1, 2015 to June 1, 2016, DHS opened 939 new foster care homes and 89 new therapeutic foster care homes. That’s a lot of child displacement.

Just under half of these were new foster care homes. I guess that doesn’t mean that the children all move around frequently. The truth is that I don’t really have a way of knowing what is typical for children in foster care. Maybe there is no typical.

All I know is what we see at school. Some are just looking for a place to feel safe and loved. Between school and home – whether it’s a temporary or permanent placement – we just hope they find two such places.

This is why, with all the budget cuts in all the agencies that serve this state, none of us who advocate for public schools have wanted to take all the available money. We want to restore the services that help our kids. We also want the other agencies that serve our kids to have the resources they need too.

During the times when my leadership team and I have to decide whether we’re going to cut A, B, and C or X, Y, and Z, these are the moments that guide us. We think about the kids who need us, the ones who cling to our necks. They’re fragile and confident and amazing and full of all the potential in the world.

I’d show you if I could.

On Ditch Diggers and Dreamers

September 5, 2016 2 comments

As I prepare the feast of meats (featuring some vegetables) for today’s over-indulgence in grilling, I briefly ponder the significance of today’s holiday. It’s Labor Day – a day for celebrating…yeah, a lot of people don’t really get that either.

All the Meats All the Veggies

Truthfully, most American holidays – especially the ones that give us the bounty of a three-day weekend – are occasions that barely resemble the reason they exist. We grill. We swim. We boat. We work around the house. We take short trips with the family.

I still see patriotism surrounding Memorial Day. There are flags set out by the American Legion and other civic groups. There are parades. Independence Day is another great holiday (albeit a noisy one) for celebrating all that we love about our country. Still, with each of these, most of our planning centers around food, family, and recreation.

According to the US Department of Labor, today’s holiday is one we began celebrating as a nation over 120 years ago.

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Through the years the nation gave increasing emphasis to Labor Day. The first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed during 1885 and 1886. From these, a movement developed to secure state legislation. The first state bill was introduced into the New York legislature, but the first to become law was passed by Oregon on February 21, 1887. During the year four more states — Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York — created the Labor Day holiday by legislative enactment. By the end of the decade Connecticut, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania had followed suit. By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday in honor of workers, and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Our country and our way of life were built on hard work. Our founders were a combination of farmers, tradesmen, and intellectuals. Even the college boys of the group got their hands dirty, though – something that we all need to do from time to time.

As a society, and even within the education community, we perpetuate this strange dichotomy that places intellect at one end and labor at the other. I ask every group of graduate students I teach to explain what the phrase college and career ready means to them. Invariably, the conversation drifts to someone saying that not all kids need to go to college.

This is true, but then I remind them that all of us in the room did go to college. Someone then reminds me that plumbers make more than teachers. Then I remind them that some do and some don’t, eventually admitting that it’s an important point to understand.

I don’t know which students should and shouldn’t go to college. You would think the kid with a high grade point average and high ACT score would want to go, and usually, you’d be right. You also might not expect much of the student who barely made it through high school, underachieving all the way. I always conclude with the reminder that it’s not our job to choose our students’ path after high school. Our job is to prepare them for the path they choose.

Some students decide on a career early. By ninth grade, they know they want to be doctors, architects, or teachers engineers. If these are their goals, then our job is to prepare them for college. On the other hand, some students decide late that they want to pursue a career that will require a college degree. That doesn’t excuse us from preparing them to be successful there.

Along the way, most students in Oklahoma will have the option of taking classes at a career tech center. If this is what our students choose to do, we should encourage them. Nothing there will keep them from also going to college if they decide to do both. Again, our job as educators is to give them every opportunity to make all the choices they can – and then to change directions if they want or need to.

One thing on which Governor Fallin and I agree is that the end goal of our labor is to produce an educated workforce. I sometimes see those on the tin foil fringe call this the very definition of communism. It’s not. It’s the very definition of investing in the future. We want our children to grow up and be productive adults. Students entering college, completing a career tech certification, or joining the military right out of high school meet this definition. We don’t want students waking up the day after high school graduation wondering what’s next?

All of us who work perform labor. Some of it is manual labor. Two of my favorite comedies – Caddyshack and Real Genius have quotes by the villains of the film that show contempt for people who labor in the traditional sense. In Caddyshack, a caddy tries to curry favor for a scholarship with the president of the country club:

[Danny Noonan] I planned to go to college after I graduated, but it looks like my folks won’t have enough money to put me through college.

[Judge Elihu Smails] Well, the world needs ditch diggers too!

In Real Genius, a snooty professor scoffs at construction workers after being threatened by a defense contractor:

[Professor Jerry Hathaway] What are you looking at? You’re laborers. You’re supposed to be laboring. That’s what you get for not having an education.

Again, we have the false dichotomy. Get an education or you’ll be working with your hands out in the heat of the sun all your life. Never mind the level of technical skill required to perform these tasks. The mindset is, I have a college degree so I must be superior. And that’s simply not true. Having a college degree means you finished college. It doesn’t make you smarter than those without, and it certainly doesn’t make you superior.

In the end, we all (well, most of us) go to work. Some get paid to type for a living, and then they offer up thoughts on public policy regarding worker’s compensation laws. Still, technically, it’s labor.labor omnia vincit

Our state motto, Labor omnia vincit, translates to Labor conquers all things. In other words, if you work hard, then I guess you’ll conquer all things.

It’s a nice thought, but some people work and work and work and never get ahead. Education is what keeps you from simply running in place on a hamster wheel.

Not only are we all laborers, we are almost all employees too. Nearly everyone who works, works for somebody. Occasionally, that means that even though you know a better way to do your job, you have someone telling you to do it differently.

This takes me to another one of my favorite comedies: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In this scene, a lost King Arthur approaches a peasant (Dennis).

[Dennis] What I object to is you automatically treating me like an inferior.

[Arthur] Well I am king.

[Dennis] Oh, king, ay, very nice. How’d you get that, ay? By exploiting the workers, by hanging onto outdated emperiest dogma, we perpetuate the economic and social differences in our society.

[Wife] Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here. [surprised] Oh, how do you do?

[Arthur] How do you do, good lady? I am Arthur, King of the Britons. Whose castle is that?

[Wife] King of the who?

[Arthur] The Britons.

[Wife] Who are the Britons?

[Arthur] Well, we all are. We are all Britons. And I am your king.

[Wife] I didn’t know we had a king. I thought we were an autonomous collective.

[Dennis] You’re fooling yourself. We’re living in a dictatorship – a self-perpetuating autocracy in which the working class is –

[Wife] Oh, there you go bringing class into it again.”

[Dennis] That’s what it’s all about. If only people would –

[Arthur] Please, please, good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?

[Wife] No one lives there.

[Arthur] Then who is your lord?

[Wife] We don’t have a lord.

[Arthur] What?

[Dennis] I told you. We are an anarcho-syndicalist commune.

[Arthur] I order you to be quiet.

[Wife] Order, eh? Who does he think he is?

[Arthur] I am your king!

[Wife] Well, I didn’t vote for you!

[Arthur] You don’t vote for kings.

[Wife] Well how’d you become king then?

Hold on. I just got distracted and now want to watch all the Monty Python clips on YouTube.

Unless you too are in an anarcho-syndicalist commune, you probably work for somebody – probably not a king, although some bosses do prance around as if they were. If you’re fortunate, when you labor, you love your work. Even then, you probably look forward to being away from work sometimes.

My thoughts today – my Labor Day-specific thoughts – are for all who work. You drive the nation’s (and state’s) economy. You build a better future. You support your families. You innovate. You do the fun jobs and the thankless ones. Yes, the world truly needs ditch diggers and laborers. It also needs dreamers.

[Veruca Salt] Snozzberries? Who ever heard of snozzberries?

[Willy Wonka] We are the music makers. And we are the dreamers of dreams.

Working and dreaming are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Our nation was not built by those who are content with the world they saw around them. Innovation has never been left to the conformists.

We work so we can play. And so we can dream. But first, we work.

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