Monday, August 24, 2015

We Hate You, Teachers, the School Reformers Said

Hello, teachers. We are the people with all the great plans to fix America’s schools. Did you know we hate you?

Yes, we do.

We are not the children you teach. Nor are we their parents. (In terms of ethics and honesty, the public rates you just below nurses, doctors and pharmacists.) It doesn’t matter to us. We hate you still.

Who are we? We are reformers who, in our insufferable arrogance, insist you must save every child. When you cannot—because no ever has—we denigrate your efforts. We question your professionalism. We are men and women who will not teach, or teach only briefly. And yet, somehow, we know it all. We are the Guggenheim’s and Bloomberg’s and Gates’ who have solutions for every problem in the public schools, but send our children to private schools.

In ways you can never fathom (probably because you aren’t very smart) we care more about children than you do.

We prove how much we care by offering up bold plans to save every child. You must implement these plans, of course. We are too rich and important and busy giving advice—and did we mention how smart we are?

If our plans fail, it can’t be our fault.

It has to be you.



Who are we? We are the politicians who hamstring your every move. We want you to save every child by piling up data. Data will save them all! Pile that data high!

Now pile it higher!

We want you to give plenty of standardized tests because lobbyists pay us to insure we push for more tests. We want you to stop complaining in your teachers’ lounges, even if we change our minds every August about which tests you must actually give. We tell all our friends your unions are the main problem in education today. We say dealing with you is like dealing with terrorists.

We want to punch you in the face.

We are the pundits who insult you daily in newspapers and on TV. We are authors of books about teaching, people who never taught, but we know exactly what we would do to save every child if we were in your shoes. Indeed, we blame you for every problem America faces today. We mock you.

We hate you, too.

But who are we, really? Sometimes, we wake in the middle of the night, and we think about what we’ve done. And we know in our hearts that we are cowards. We toss and turn because we know we have asked you to do all the fighting that must be done to save the children. We don’t save a soul.

We criticize. We don’t act.

We weren’t there at Sandy Hook when you and the children were slaughtered like sheep in a pen. We weren’t there when Colleen Ritzer was murdered in a bathroom at the school where she taught. We weren’t there to tackle the gunman at Chardon High. We have no plan to address violence in schools and don’t really care what happens to you. We are the fools in Congress, whose approval rating hasn’t topped 20% since September 2012. We are the governors and state lawmakers who hold out our hands to receive fat contributions from corporate education interests. All you do is hold the hands of traumatized Chicago second graders, or scared Nevada middle school kids who have just seen blood spilled, on the way to, or at their schools.

We are the men and women who act like we know more about saving children than you do, even if you have spent six years, or sixteen, or thirty-six in a classroom, working with kids. We have spent no time in a classroom, most of us, or labored only two or three years. Then we tired of the challenge. We realized we were better suited to giving advice and piling up fat speaking fees, often by lambasting you. “Here is what you need to do,” we insisted, “if you want to save every child.” But we don’t think you do. We tell everyone you are lazy, and protected by tenure, and stupid, too.

We are the bureaucrats who put together studies no one, save other bureaucrats, will ever read, who pile data in giant heaps. We say you can never have enough data, not when it comes to saving kids. We are the types who become U. S. Secretaries of Education without ever saving one child.

Who are you, teachers? You are nothing to us.

But who are you, really? Your students think you matter. Their parents do, too. You are the educator who teaches the painfully shy five-year-old to speak in kindergarten for the first time. You are the third grade teacher who consoles the boy who just found out his parents are going to file for divorce. You are the teacher who helps the fifth grader who weeps one morning at school, after his drunken mother shaves large patches in his head the night before, who sends him to the counselor. You are the counselor and the school nurse who cut off the remaining, random tufts of hair, so the poor young man will feel a bit better in the end.

You are the foot soldiers of education. The battlefield is your classroom, where all the fighting takes place. It is there you labor without respite to fire great kids from fine homes with a passion to excel. And on that same battlefield you try to save the sixth grader who comes to class smelling of urine because he and his mother call a rusted out station wagon home. It will not be easy saving this boy. You know that—even if the people who criticize you so cavalierly do not.

(Or perhaps they know, and don’t care.)

Who are you? You are the special education instructor who must help autistic twins fit in with the other kids in the seventh grade. You are the junior varsity track coach who motivates girls to run harder than they ever thought they could. You are the tenth grade Language Arts teacher who can spot the unnecessary word in any sentence, in any essay you receive, a word like a wart on a beauty queen’s nose, and convince a young writer to cut it out.

This is who you really are. You deal with teens every day, kids who belong to gangs, gifted teens, teens who are contemplating suicide and want to know if you have time to talk. Many of you have been fighting for young people almost your entire adult lives. You have embraced the challenge. You have not wavered or quit. But you are more frustrated than at any time in your careers.

You are sick of the haters who have no earthly clue.

You are the art teacher who fuels a fire of creativity in your fourth grade kids.

You are the middle school band instructor who turns bleating trumpet players into future professional musicians.

You are the health teacher who reaches that obese kid and shows her a path that will help her lose weight.

You are the biology teacher who inspires a young woman who goes on to Ohio State and to graduate school at Yale.

You are the math teacher who feeds the thirst for knowledge of a future Rhodes Scholar.

You are legion. You are men and women who give up evenings every week and Sunday afternoons to call parents, work on lesson plans, attend concerts and games, and catch up on tall stacks of ungraded papers, projects and artwork.

Really, who are you? You are the people who labor long and hard to save every child.

And, really, who are we? You do all the fighting. We talk and talk. We are shirkers in the fight to save children.

We hate you in the end because when we look in a mirror, we see what we truly are and what we are not.


MY BOOK ON TEACHING--ABOUT WHAT REAL TEACHERS KNOW--IS NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.


No standardized tests necessary!!!!!



Monday, August 10, 2015

Two Legs Suffice: What My Book is About


Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching is based partly on my years with the United States Marines (1968-70), although I never saw combat. 

So I don’t know diddly about combat and do not pretend I do. I argue in that very same vein that school reformers know nothing about teaching. 

The heart and soul of my story flow out of my work with 5,000 teens in Loveland, Ohio (1975-2008). In Chapter Three I explain that I could name on two hands all the students I didn’t like and still have two thumbs left over.

I loved teaching. I worked in a very solid community. But what I try to make clear is that teaching is never easy. All real teachers know this. 

None of the reformers seem to have a clue. 

My book includes two chapters about pedaling a bicycle across the United States (2007; 2011), to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Students and staff at Loveland Middle School helped raise $13,500 leading up to the first ride and both journeys tie into my basic premise, that effort is paramount in education, just as it is while pedaling up and over Tioga Pass.

That goes for everyone on a seat. 

Near the top of Tioga Pass.
A tiny white speck on the road above my handlebars is a large RV.



MY BASIC MESSAGE

1.    Most teachers are good. We aren’t the idiots and slackers our critics like to pretend. We are not the problem in education. Of course, good teachers can do much in any classroom to help students succeed.

2.    Good teachers can’t solve every problem. So good teachers, even excellent ones, need help.

3.    You can’t just keep offering up big, bold plans to “fix the schools,” like the reformers love to do. You don’t fix families by “fixing the homes.” You have to work with individuals. You have to help people.

4.   Those who offer up big, bold plans to fix the schools never intend to do any of the fixing themselves.

5.    Motivation is the key to success for everyone in a classroom, including students. Tips on motivating students feature prominently. 

6.    Money isn’t the key to improving education—though it is sadly true we don’t do nearly enough to help students struggling in poverty.

7.    Standardized testing is doing great harm in U. S. education. 

8.    If we want to follow the surest path to improving learning outcomes, then two legs suffice.
(The premise of my book rests on a lesson I shared with students about Bruce Jennings, who pedaled a bicycle across the United States in 1976, with one leg.)

9.  Motivation: See also: United States Marines.

In my final chapter, I quote many former students (I’m “friends” with a thousand on Facebook). Mark’s comment is my favorite:

“Through the years I’ve often thought back to your teaching…Everything you did in the classroom, discipline included, was geared to help us become better thinkers, better writers and better citizens.”

In an era when those I call the “Big Fixers” in education (Arne Duncan, Wendy Kopp, Bill Gates, and that sorry crew) insult frontline educators at every turn, I’m content to say I did my best to stand on that ground. 

I argue that millions of ordinary teachers, dedicated individuals just like me, do their best to stand on that same spot.


If you’re interested, the book is now available on Amazon.com.

If you prefer, you can send a check for $15 to my home address and save a few dollars:

John J. Viall
750 Woodbine Avenue
Glendale, Ohio  45246

Saturday, August 8, 2015

In the Days of Corporal Punishment

Occasionally, I hear someone insist that we must bring back corporal punishment to our schools. I could write an entire chapter on that subject. 

The capsule version would be: I can’t agree.

Early in my career, I did swat, as most teachers did. One day, I gave a young man what I thought was a fairly ordinary swat. But he ended up bruising badly. In days and weeks to follow I heard from other students that other teachers had bruised them, too. I heard from parents that they’d been swatted as kids, bruised, but learned to behave accordingly.

In my case, I had bruised the boy badly. His mother was furious and filed a criminal complaint. I never blamed her for being angry; but I was charged with a felony assault and had to head for court. Lose that case, in 1982, and my teaching career is over. (Some might have said, “And justly so.”)

Someday, I may take the time to tell this story in detail. For now, let’s just say I was found innocent. 

I still don’t blame the mother.

I still understand why mom was angry—and still think I gave the boy only a normal swat. But one detail still amazes me and may prove revelatory to those who don’t know the full story. When the case was decided in my favor I returned to school the next day. My career could continue! That afternoon, Ed Lenney, our wonderful principal, called me into his office during my conference period. He said I had better sit down.

“John,” he explained, “Mrs. ----- [the mother who filed charges] just called.”

My immediate thought was: “She’s going to file a civil complaint [for damages]. I’ll have to go to court and defend myself all over again.”

“You can handle this however you want,” Ed continued, “but she wanted to know if you’d take Carl [the boy; using, here, a fictitious name] back in class.”

(Carl had been removed from my American history class, of course, once charges were filed.)

“WHAT!” I exclaimed. (I don’t recall if I added an expletive. I think I was too surprised.) “WHY?”

“Mrs. ---- says she thinks you’re a good teacher.”

Of all the developments in the story, this was the only one that really surprised me. I thought about it a moment, because I liked almost every kid I ever met, and never had any bad feelings for the boy or his mother. He did bruise badly, after all. That wasn’t a hallucination. Still, I quickly decided that it would be better for all if Carl continued to learn his lessons from another teacher.

I almost never swatted another student again—except in one or two cases where parents actually asked for their child to be given corporal punishment. (Usually, this was chosen in lieu of some kind of suspension.)

And I can assure you that in my experience swatting teens was never enjoyable. You can make the argument, however, that it beats arresting them, which is what schools started doing in the 1980s, and still do today, when school resource officers began to be needed to roam the halls. I am also fully aware that the word “beats” in the previous sentence is loaded with all kinds of different meanings.

(I should also note that today there are 17,000 school resource officers, or cops, to put the matter bluntly, roaming the halls of American schools.

***

Regardless, the argument against corporal punishment is effectively settled in the negative. I never missed using the paddle, myself, and instituted a regimen of Marine Corps pushups as my last line of defense when young men acted up in class. (I explain that whole approach in my book if you’re interested.)

So, on a lighter note, let me share one funny story from the Dark Ages, as some might call it, of corporal punishment. The rule in my class, when I was first teaching, was simple. Skip an after school detention and you earned a swat the next day. 

(Most kids who had detention after school had failed to complete several assignments and I preferred to keep them after rather than give them zeroes and let them waste their talents.) 

Beyond question, the award for creativity in such a situation goes to a young man named Ken 
----.

Ken was a good-old-fashioned boy at a time when Loveland was a country district, not the affluent suburban community it would later become. Ken’s only problem stemmed from lack of motivation. He didn’t complete his work and earned a detention. Unfortunately, he failed to make his cameo appearance. 

As expected, Ken entered Room 207, at the start of sixth bell the next afternoon. “You know the rule, Ken,” I said almost immediately. I put the rest of the class to work and told him to step out in the hall.

He looked worried but made no excuse for skipping.

I asked another teacher to witness, as required, and when Ken bent over as ordered I gave him a moment to collect his thoughts. Then I gave him a swat. 

Normally, a swat made a cracking sound. This time it was more of a thump. Something was wrong.

“Ken, what are you wearing?” I inquired.

He looked embarrassed. But he was quick to admit the truth. “Eleven pairs of underwear, four pairs of gym shorts, two pairs of shorts, and sweat pants,” he explained sheepishly. 

I had to laugh. “Well,” I explained, “you out-foxed me this time. Just don’t skip detention again.”


Ken went back into my room and I followed, tossing my paddle on my desk with a clatter. Then it was back to teaching.

There are other ways to discipline children. This one: for arguing siblings.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Case of the Missing Homework

Many leading school reformers seem to believe that the only sure way to improve what happens in America’s schools is to “hold teachers accountable.”

I admit I worked with a few bad teachers during my career. But I don’t think I ever looked down the hall at school and said, “You know, the main problem in this school is all the teachers.”

I never saw evidence that educators were the main obstacle in the path of learning.

In fact, student reluctance to do the work necessary to earn a quality education seemed to be a far more critical issue. I don’t mean all my students were lazy. Not at all. I taught thousands of hard-working kids. I did find, however, that a minority had a tendency to coast unless someone gave them a little push.

I knew what that was like, too. Somewhere around the age of thirteen, my brain stopped functioning, and I decided to do as little work in junior high and high school as I could possibly manage. In fact, I was proud of myself, to know I finished in the bottom half of my graduating class.

I had a perfectly good mind. I just didn’t care to use it. (See proof below.)

At least I was doing well in American history and gym.


Fortunately, I learned the basics of motivation in 1968, at Parris Island, after enlisting in the United States Marines.

When I became a teacher, myself, I tried to make it hard for kids to loaf in class—and hard for them to fail. 

I set high standards. But if students failed tests, I called home and asked parents to ensure their children studied and took the test again, after school. I didn’t average grades—the first F, and say, a B+ on the second try. If a young man got a 92 B+ on the second test that was the grade I inked in the book. 

I used a similar approach when it came to missing homework. I used to round up kids who owed me work, at lunch, or during study hall, like a cowboy going after strays. I’d bring in my “failing” students and put them right to work. I would agree to stay after school, or come in early, any time kids fell behind in history class.

What I would not tolerate was poor effort.

In any case, I imagine former students might agree, I got mad more often if they didn’t use their talents than for all other reasons combined.

In third period one morning I called for everyone to turn in a set of questions that were due. Before I could manage to collect, Mrs. Kemen, one of the best young teachers I ever knew, appeared at my classroom door to ask for advice on some minor matter. I stepped into the hall to answer her question. Then I returned to class. When I asked for homework again, not a single paper came up from the left side of the room. (I had student desks in a horseshoe-shaped seating arrangement; see below). Even Kyle, the most dependable kid in the class, said he had forgotten the assignment.

Seating chart used in my class. My post was at the open end of the horseshoe.


The middle section likewise produced zero papers.

“Unbelievable,” I muttered darkly.

When the right side of the room failed to produce any papers, I slammed my grade book to the floor like a coach who had just watched his defense give up a 99-yard touchdown pass.

“YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING!” I snapped.

With that I stomped out the door for effect. (I could act mad with ease; I rarely really was.) Like an actor considering how to do the next scene, I could reenter angry, or hurt, or adopt my cold, assassin voice. The only issue was: which reaction might convince a few teens to move in the proper direction?

To use their talents—and not loaf.

I stepped back into the room and for the thousandth time tried to impress on my charges that they needed to learn as much as they could—for their own good. I insisted that true learning required true effort. I went on in this way for two or three minutes, trying to stir a sense of shame or a bit of resolve.

Finally, Kyle could stand no more. He yanked his homework out from under his notebook and waved it in triumph. Papers appeared from all directions and cheers filled the room.

“We love you, Mr. Viall,” Courtney called out merrily.

When everyone finally stopped laughing, especially me, Kyle admitted having masterminded the whole ruse. 

Almost everyone had their homework, after all. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Creative Discipline for Middle School: Angie Collects Belly Button Lint

            Early in my career I came up with a funny way to deal with minor violations of classroom decorum. I realized essay punishments could be humorous and still effective. 

            In most cases, you wanted kids to quit goofing around, or talking a little too much. No sense treating their breaches of etiquette like criminal infractions. Stick them with a 150-word essay as a simple reminder. Making it comical allowed peers to share in a laugh and showed your students you wanted to have fun in class, while still expecting everyone to abide by the rules. When Kayla was tardy too often, I had her write about how she became a fashion icon by inventing concrete shoes. On another occasion, Josh seemed to be writing a love note instead of doing his assigned reading. I had him write an essay about falling asleep in class and getting his history book stuck to his face for a week. 

            As you might expect, he explained in his essay how his rare affliction made it impossible to flirt with the girl of his dreams.

            One day, Angie got in trouble for some minor matter. I had her write: “I Collect Belly Button Lint for a Hobby.” Angie didn’t stop at 150 words. She was a collector in the truest sense and her essay filled five pages. She had lint from actors, from every president in the last twenty years, and dreamed of finding the Holy Grail of lint—from the belly button of Elvis Presley (assuming Elvis lived). 

            In most cases punishment fit the “crime.”  One day, Rob came flying through my door, with a friend in hot pursuit. Before I could tell them both to slow down Rob tripped and somersaulted across the linoleum. He dusted himself off without injury, but I made Rob write about his life as “The Human Cannonball.” 

            Wendy R. (a straight-A student) had to write an essay after laughing once too often and disturbing class. I forget the title; but she pinpointed her friend Wendy M. as the source of all her difficulties: “At times Wendy’s nostrils will go in and out as if they were controlled by a motor.”

Max Larson tended to turn around too often and talk to friends. One day I grew tired of viewing the back of his head. 

So I had him write about having a giant tongue. In his essay he called Landon, the friend who had lured him into sin, to inform him of his tragic condition. The essay followed the conventions of a popular Budweiser beer advertisement:

“Hello.” [Landon answers.]

“Wattttttttthhhhhuuuup!!!”

“Hey, man.  I would finish the lines in the commercial but I just gotta ask. What’s wrong with your voice?”

“Miy tung.”

“What?”

“Miy tung iz big,” I said angrily.

“Oh, I see.

“Wat sod I du?”

“Gee, got me.”

“Tanks, yor no hep.”  Then I hung up…..


            One last example deserves special mention. One day a young man got in trouble for talking during detention.  I asked him to write “The Life of a Cucumber.” 

His story began: “I started out the first part of my life in a little cold plastic bag. The bag sat on a shelf in the store, for a long time before some one decided to buy the bag of seeds.”

            This essay was not particularly funny, but carried the name of the author, Brian ----.  Only Brian’s handwriting appeared to be unusually good.  Normally, Brian’s handwriting was abominable. 

I still have my notes describing the incident:  “Caught Brian ----lying today because his mother wrote his punishment essay. Brian said:  

1) he claimed he wrote it and she corrected it 
2) okay, no, he said, mom wrote part of it 
3) well, yes, she wrote it all.

I called Mrs. ---- that evening and she offered this lame defense: “I don’t see anything wrong with a mother helping a child.” 

 “Nor do I,” I responded. “But you weren’t helping. You did the entire essay for him and let him off his punishment.” 

I told her Brian would have to write a different essay entirely; but if it had been in my power I would have given her a topic all her own to do: “What Happens to a Boy when Mom is an Enabler?” 


****

In my book, Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching, I include an entire chapter on creative discipline. AVAILABLE NOW ON AMAZON:





Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What I Learned by Writing a Book about Teaching

Six years ago, I sat down to write a book about teaching. I already knew a great deal about teaching.

I spent most of my adult life in a classroom.

I admit here, as well as in my book, that I knew nothing about heart surgery and almost nothing about plumbing. I served with the Marines during the Vietnam War. I’m no hero though. I was a clerk in a Camp Pendleton, California supply unit. I don’t know diddly about combat. So I don’t pretend I do.

I only know teaching.

Writing a book about the art of educating young people proved interesting and I learned a great deal in the process. For starters, I learned that people who know nothing about teaching seem compelled to write books about teaching.

Most of these books add nothing to a reader’s understanding and the worst (and there are many) may do actual harm.

It would be no difficult task to provide a long list of examples, but let me limit myself to but one. If you’ve never heard of Wendy Kopp, she’s the young college graduate who founded Teach for America back in 1989. Kopp quickly became the darling of school reform circles, quoted widely in magazines and newspapers, showing up with alarming frequency on cable news TV. Kopp was always happy to offer insights about teaching. Most of those insights centered on the idea that we needed to get more smart people—people like Kopp, who attended an Ivy League institution—into teaching. To paraphrase her message, the teachers we had were just dumb.

Kopp has three books to her credit, including Teaching as Leadership, which I find amazing. Not the book. No. I mean the fact Kopp has written three books about teaching without teaching.

(Call me Dr. Viall! I hereby claim to be a renowned heart surgeon!)

I don’t know if my particular book will sell. I do know I know more about teaching than Ms. Kopp and probably the top fifty “school reformers” combined. (Millions of frontline educators could say the same.) And I’m proud of the message I’m trying to relay. Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching is intended as a defense of all good teachers, one classroom combat veteran’s attempt to explain what good teachers can do—which is much—and what they cannot do without help.

I already knew, the day I began writing, that there was potential in every child. I already knew that my job as an educator had been to tap that potential in every way possible. What I learned while writing was that reformers like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee held frontline educators to an impossible standard. “Good” was not good enough. Even “very good” was akin to failure.

Oh no. They were prone to making bold statements like: “Every child deserves an excellent teacher.”

(More on that in a moment.)

Even a gifted writer like Amanda Ripley could offer up simplistic lines like the following, in a Time magazine article about education in 2010: “We now know that it is possible to teach every kid, even poor kids with wretched lives, to read, write and do math and science at respectable levels.”

I knew, of course—because I actually taught—that it was possible to teach every child. I had always felt that in my bones. I had lived by that philosophy in my own classroom for thirty-three years. But I knew what millions of dedicated teachers know, what Ripley did not, because Ripley never taught. “Yes, you are right,” we might have told Ms. Ripley, “but we have been in combat, so to speak, and you have not. It is possible to teach every child. It certainly isn’t easy and trying with all your heart and soul can wear you out.”

I remember a young man in my class back in 1981. He was absent 140 days in seventh grade alone. In the end, we had little choice but to fail him, because citing parents to court on four separate occasions didn’t help.

The next year he missed another 108 days.

Was it possible to teach him? In theory, it was. In reality, however, it was a daunting, depressing challenge. It’s easy to say, as a magazine writer, that it is possible to teach every child. It can be hard if you’re a teacher in this situation—unless, maybe, you possess some telepathic power.

What did I learn while writing to add to what I already knew from experience? I learned that these kinds of attendance problems were a national problem. I learned that researchers at Johns Hopkins University were reporting 10-15% of all U. S. students piled up a month or more of unexcused absences annually.

I kept hearing school reformers insist that every child deserved an excellent child. I kept wondering. Why isn’t anyone saying, “Every child deserve an excellent pediatrician?” Or: “Every child deserves excellent parents.”

At the same time, I learned our representatives in Congress had no idea what they were doing when it came to writing education policy.  These were the boneheads who gave us No Child Left Behind in 2002, who promised every child would be proficient in reading and math by 2014, who could not fix that flawed law even after it had clearly and catastrophically failed. And I learned that our lawmakers have spent eight years trying to recraft NCLB and still can’t agree on details.

What else did I learn?

I learned that pundits agree. Teachers are the problem in U. S. education. Kopp and many others think we’re stupid. Some say we’re too protected by unions. Some enjoy insulting teachers for the fun of it. Brent Staples, for example, put a finger on the “problem” in our schools when he claimed in a 2010 editorial that, “Public schools generally do a horrendous job of screening and evaluating teachers, which means that they typically end up hiring and granting tenure to any warm body that comes along.”

(I had to put down the paper for a moment and check my temperature to see if I could still be a teacher. Okay: 98.6°. I still could.)

I knew the day I retired in 2008, that I had always loved teaching. I knew, because students told me, that I was good in the classroom. I knew, by observing peers, and talking to students and parents, that most of them were good too. Excellent? Yes, some were excellent too.

Generally, I think excellence is rare in any field.

I do know I never once looked down a hallway at school and thought to myself, “Teachers. Yeah. We’re the problem.”

Here’s what I knew before I wrote single word for my book. I knew the boy who spent months living in a rusted out station wagon was going to struggle in school no matter what members of the staff at my wife’s school might do.

I learned by writing that 2.5 million American children were homeless for at least part of every year.

I learned that reformers insist “poverty” is an excuse teachers trot out so they can evade responsibility for failing to educate every child. That’s what Joel I. Klein, chancellor of New York City Schools, said in 2009. And, again, it almost goes without saying Klein never taught at all.

Klein’s big idea was to grade schools. I thought we might need to talk about “grading parents” or “grading society,” too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a former Marine. I believe in the power of motivation. I knew that my motivation as a teacher meant much. I also knew I did not teach in a vacuum. I knew education was a stool with three legs. I knew educators were one. Students were a second. Parents were a third.

Unlike all the arrogant school reformers, who offer up bold plans, but never bother or even dare to lend a hand, I knew we couldn’t improve education if all we planned to do was “hold teachers accountable.”

I knew that could never work.

I knew, because I met thousands of parents in the Ohio community where I worked, that most moms and dads were good, just as most educators were good. I knew some parents were excellent, too. I also knew parents were like a shadow, their influence and the values they inculcated in their offspring following them to school.

I knew, because I had tried teaching, that the boy whose schizophrenic mother came to my wife’s school and tried to kill the principal with a large butcher knife must face terrible problems in the home.

I knew the girl in my class who had been sexually abused by her father and older brother had problems that I might not be able to solve.

I would often wonder what we were going to do—as a society—to help children who suffered terribly, not in school, but at home. What were we going to do for the infant whose father beat her and stuck her in a freezer to stop her from crying? For the toddler whose mother filmed her smoking marijuana?

(Go to YouTube and search: “Pot Smoking Toddler” if you want to watch. I find it too depressing to even provide a link.)

You couple multiply these cases out into the millions. Why, then, weren’t all the bold school reformers focusing on parents responsible for three million cases of child abuse and neglect every year?

Yes, every child did deserve excellent teachers. But excellent parents would trump that every time. What about that third leg of the stool?

I already knew (because I had studied my colleagues for years), that principals and school counselors and psychologists were often overwhelmed by complex competing demands. I knew the situation had worsened as the focus on standardized testing grew.

I knew lawmakers at the state and national levels had failed to provide adequate funds, at least for the poorest schools.

I didn’t know—but learned while writing—that the United States had one of the highest poverty rates for children of all the advanced countries on the face of this green and blue earth.


I knew that as a society we did not do enough to help children growing up under trying conditions. I learned while writing that life was hard for all kinds of kids—that 2.7 million children had at least one parent behind bars.

I learned that 23 million Americans over the age of 12, nearly one in ten, were addicted to alcohol or drugs. (This included 1 in every 15 high school seniors who admitted smoking marijuana daily.)

I learned that a plague of prescription drug misuse was sweeping the nation, that in Scioto County, Ohio, 10% of babies were born addicted to drugs. I knew teachers weren’t the only leg to the stool.

I listened to the school reformers talk and talk and talk about how we needed more and more standardized tests. We had to “hold teachers accountable.” I tried to understand how standardized testing was going to fix all this societal mess.

I did learn we spent at least $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. I wished we could have taken that money and used it to beef up children’s protective services in every city and state in the land.

I knew from seeing the damage in my classroom, and the damage done to my two oldest kids, that even good parents were having increasing trouble—with the American family (including my own) battered by divorce and other negative forces. In 1950, for example, 6% of children in this country grew up in single-parent homes. By 2012 that figure had soared to 35%.

I learned that poverty does matter, not just in schools, but in hospitals, too. When it comes to life expectancy, the richest 10% of American men could expect to live eleven years longer than the poorest 10%.

I learned that in Chicago, Arne Duncan, who went on to be U. S. Secretary of Education, had been credited with “fixing the schools.” Sadly, after he left for Washington those schools didn’t stay fixed at all. Hundreds of school-age kids were shot and wounded every year in the Windy City. Gangs were the main cause.

In 2013, according to NBC News, Chicago had 100,000 gang members. Most were between the ages of 16 and 19.

I thought that seemed like a problem educators alone might not be able to solve, certainly not by “grading schools.”

I learned that critics seemed to have sweet kindergartners in mind when they talked about “saving every child.” I knew none of them had ever had to face down an agitated teen with a gun in a hallway at school. I knew they were not considering children with severe emotional problems. I knew, because I taught, what that could be like. In 1984 I had a young man bring a gun to school to shoot me.

I was lucky in that case; but I suppose we all learned—by watching the bloody news—that violence in America’s schools was rising steadily. I learned that since January 1, 2010, there have been more than a hundred shootings in and around our nation’s schools, with more than 250 teachers, students and bystanders killed or wounded.

I could never figure out how creating more charter schools was a priority, when the halls of the schools we already had were running crimson with blood.

I did learn while writing that school reformers, including the corporate types out to make a few million quick bucks, knew nothing about the problems frontline educators faced. And frankly, I learned that they didn’t really care. (Well, about anything besides money, I mean.) I learned that they blamed tens of thousands of real educators for creating “dropout factories.” These were schools, reformers howled, where teachers were rap-tap-tapping along some diabolical assembly line. We were purposely creating dropouts. The corporate types would stop us. They would create a business model for education that truly worked! (Translation: worked for them.) Secretary Duncan, perhaps the most clueless individual ever to hold his cabinet position, warned that there were 5,000 “dropout factories” spread across the United States.

I kept writing. I kept learning. I learned that pregnant teens were far more likely to drop out of school.

I learned in Ohio, that the law made it illegal for kids to drop out before age 18, without parental permission. Yet, 23,000 Ohio teens walked away from schools every year and never returned.

I learned a great deal more while writing about teaching. But I already knew a lot. I knew that the growing fetish for standardized tests had been crippling education and stifling learning in multiple ways.

I learned by writing, and by talking with hundreds of educators in the seven years since I retired, that the negative effects related to testing were growing worse with every passing season, like a metastasizing brain tumor.

I already knew, because I served with the United States Marines, because I pedaled a bicycle across the United States twice (with my role model Bruce Jennings, a young man who did it in 1976 with only one leg), because I worked with 5,000 teens, that there was one clear path if we wanted to improve what happened in schools.

I already knew everyone involved in education or interested in helping would have to be willing to pedal to reach their goals. I knew that two legs (and sometimes one, and even none) would always suffice.

So I wrote my book.



Now available Amazon.com.