In Response To Gov. Engler

Former Michigan Governor John Engler recently penned an editorial praising Betsy DeVos as a great pick for Secretary of Education. At the very least, his editorial needs a good fact-checking. So here we go.

I often get asked about President-elect Trump’s choice as the next leader of the U.S. Department of Education. In each response, I start by calling Betsy DeVos a highly qualified, creative and promising pick to lead the department.

Betsy DeVos does not have a degree in education, nor does she have any relevant experience in education. She sure doesn’t seem qualified in the academic sense.

Ninety percent of American students rely on the public education system for their schooling. Mrs. DeVos never attended public school, nor did any of her children. Again, somebody who does not understand the environment in which 90 percent of  students learn each day does not seem to be qualified for the position.

The key is supporting what works, from rigorous standards to charter schools to transparency across the system.

The charter schools in Michigan favored by Engler and DeVos have not improved educational outcomes. The magic bullet of competition favored by business-friendly conservatives has only succeeded in dragging more Michigan schools down. And there’s plenty of evidence that competition isn’t the answer when it comes to improving schools. Just ask Sweden.

Thankfully, as a businesswoman and entrepreneur, Ms. DeVos has been singularly focused on accountability and results — exactly what our education system needs. She is a particularly strong advocate for increasing accountability of both traditional and charter public schools in Michigan.

Except, she’s not. DeVos has thrown a great deal of money to organizations and legislators that fought against oversight for charters in Michigan. She can claim to be pro-transparency and pro-accountability all she wants, but the reality is that DeVos’ actions show that she wants traditional public schools to play by a different, more stringent set of rules.

For example, she supported a new state law that grades Detroit schools from A to F and shutters the doors of any school that receives an F for three consecutive years. It has been a bitter pill for some, but a necessary prescription for a city system that has been failing students for years.

It’s a bitter pill because closing a school is not “accountability”. It’s punishing the local community, especially when the other choices (charters) in the area have done a poor job.

Of note, CREDO concluded that Michigan was “among the highest performing charter school states.” I am proud that the law that Ms. DeVos championed and that I signed in 1993 is achieving these results.

Test scores have been steadily declining in Michigan. If there are great results worthy of praise, we’re simply not seeing them. Over 20 years since Governor Engler passed Proposal A, and Michigan is ranked near the bottom of the nation in education quality.

To those who have seen the work that Ms. DeVos has led, and the educational successes she has helped achieve, it is clear that there is no one better to lead the Department of Education at this critical time.

[Citation needed]. Again, what successes is Engler talking about? Public money has been funneled into private pockets thanks to DeVos’ policies. In 2011, less than a quarter of Detroit charters were outperforming their public counterparts. Twenty-five percent is a failure no matter how you slice it.

Where’s the accountability for the failed ideas of Betsy DeVos?


Let’s stop calling the public “customers”

I worked at Jimmy John’s in college. A couple of them, actually. And I was pretty damn good at slinging sandwiches. It’s been at least 10 years since I put on the uniform, and I’m pretty confident that I could still get behind the counter and pump food out quickly.

When I was at JJ’s, I had a pretty clearly defined relationship with our customers. They pay for a sandwich, or sandwiches. I make said sandwich. We exchange pleasantries while I wrap their sandwich. I tell them to have a great day. They leave. It was different with regulars only in the sense that we would repeat this process with them on a daily basis.

That’s where it ended though. When that sandwich left the shop, the door closed on that relationship. I never stayed after my shift had ended to help any of the customers become better at consuming their sandwiches. I never lost any sleep worrying that the Italian Night Club I had made during the lunch rush didn’t have a warm home to go back to. I never had the urge to go check in with sandwiches that I had made years prior.

And after sitting through yet another meeting where somebody described the local community as “our customers”, I couldn’t help but realize just how terrible that label is. “Customer” doesn’t even begin to describe how deep the bonds are between teacher and community. We care deeply for our students even when they leave our classes for the day. We sacrifice our time and energy even when we are off the clock.

When I made a sandwich, there was no considering what impact that Beach Club with extra sprouts would have on the community. When I teach kid? That’s a huge part of my thought process. Is what we’re doing in here benefiting the school community, and the community at large?

When we call the public “customers”, we are selling them short. They are our allies, our supporters, our partners, our stakeholders. Calling them customers does them a disservice. We are just as invested in the students as they are, let’s start conveying that and think of ourselves as more than just customer service reps.

Time for change

It’s clear that NAfME has a serious problem on its hands, and they need to part ways with executive director Michael Butera immediately. Apparently on April 26 at a meeting hosted by the NEA, Mr. Butera decided to publicly share some remarkably prejudiced and wrong-headed beliefs. According to Mr. Butera, NAfME’s membership lacks diversity because “Blacks and Latinos lack the keyboard skills needed for this field” and said something to the effect of “music theory is too difficult for them”.


Look, everybody is entitled to their own personal views, no matter how stupid and ignorant those views are. I would like to assure the author of this article that as a NAfME member, I do not share Mr. Butera’s beliefs, and I will be reaching out to NAfME to let them know I believe his views have no place in the organization and neither should he.

It’s laughably easy to come up with a list of musicians to counter Mr. Butera’s beliefs. I’m pretty sure Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Robin and Kevin Eubanks, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Hilliard, James Reese Europe, Adolphus Hailstork, Billy Strayhorn, Gustavo Dudamel, Astor Piazzola, Manuel De Falla, etc, all demonstrate a great understanding of music theory, great keyboard skills, or both. Several of the professors, graduate students, and teachers that I’ve worked with in my short career are also living evidence against Mr. Butera’s beliefs.

I can not in good conscience remain a NAfME member if Mr. Butera is allowed to continue in his leadership role. As teachers we would not dream of excluding students based on their nationality or the color of their skin. It’s massively disappointing that somebody in a position of power in our national organization seems to believe differently.

Competition Is Not The Answer To Everything

The Michigan state legislature is currently mulling a substantial financial bailout for Detroit Public Schools. If you’ve been following the news at all, you know that this aid is sorely needed. Schools in Detroit are physically falling apart. Students aren’t safe. Teachers are falling ill.

But don’t worry, education expert Betsy DeVos has an alternative solution!

I wish sarcasm translated better to text.

Ms. DeVos has joined the chorus of education “experts” who feel that all of the problems with our nation’s public schools can be solved with the magic bullet of competition.

Look, competition can be a good thing in some areas of life. Business pour money into product development hoping to gain new customers. We generally get better products as a result. Sports teams compete all the time, and it’s wildly entertaining.

But there’s one undeniable fact of competition, one that the education reform crowd always seems to ignore.

When two entities compete, one always loses.

This is fine if we’re talking about a couple of college basketball teams. This is not a game we should be willing to play when it comes to our children. The math just doesn’t work out. Forcing schools to compete for students and funding would probably work out great for districts that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would remain wealthy and continue to achieve. And some students will be left behind.

But what about school choice? Comes the reply.

Again, great for districts and schools that are already wealthy and high achieving. They would attract more students, and would no doubt change some lives. But many students would inevitably be left behind at their old schools, and the gap in the quality of education children receive would widen.

Look at this on a small scale. District A markets itself as a home for school of choice students. It offers a diverse curriculum, rich in the arts, filled with opportunities for students to create and grow. Thanks to the state funding that comes in with each student, District A’s budget grows with each student it attracts. District A is able to continue offering a fantastic curriculum, and the cycle continues.

Districts B and C are neighbors of District A. They were a little slow in adding programs to their curriculum, so they lost students, and thus lost money. Class sizes grow a little bit, parents continue to be attracted to the offerings of District A. More students leave, funding drops. Districts B and C are forced to cut programs to balance their books, only accelerating their decline. The students and families remaining in Districts B and C watch the quality of education drop. District A wins.

Look at it on an even smaller scale. I teach music. I could choose to foster a highly competitive environment with my 7th and 8th grade band students. Kids would compete for chairs, there would be challenges, all that stuff. Some kids would be motivated to practice more, and would thus win challenges and rise to the top of their section. Students who continue to lose challenges might lose their motivation, their passion, and may eventually leave the music program. Would my bands sound better? Maybe, but I’m not willing to pay that price.

We’re not talking about a battle between Comcast and Uverse for customers here. We’re talking about people willing to gamble with the education of their children. This isn’t something we should accept as a society. Instead, legislators and reformers should be proposing solutions that encourage schools and districts to collaborate. District A has some programs that have been very successful in enriching the lives of students? Great! Here’s some release time for the teachers in District A to share those lessons with teachers in Districts B and C. Everybody wins in that scenario.

Well, except for Betsy DeVos. And I’m okay with that.

Thank You, Ellen

Seriously. Thank you.

Thank you for noticing the struggles of Detroit Public Schools. Thank you for stepping up and using your considerable wealth and powerful connections to help these dedicated educators and their deserving students. Thank you for doing what the “privatize everything” crowd in our Republican-dominated state legislature couldn’t do, and actually giving a damn about these students. Thank you for putting the poor conditions at DPS into the national spotlight.

And here’s where my cynical side takes over.

This is only a drop in the bucket. Spain is far from the only public school in Detroit with serious problems. As wealthy and generous as Ellen is, she doesn’t have enough coin to fix everything that needs fixing. More importantly, our schools should not have to rely on the philanthropy of celebrities to safely serve our children. That’s a dangerous path to start treading.

I hope Ellen’s gift is just the start of helping Detroit’s schools. I hope the state follows her example, and pledges enough resources to give these educators and students the facilities they deserve. I hope we can look back on this in a few years, and say thank you to Ellen for getting the ball rolling.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Phil Pavlov, Enemy to Education

The sick-outs staged by Detroit Public Schools teachers in recent weeks have caught the attention of the state legislature, and not in a good way. Senator Phil Pavlov has rammed three bills through the Senate Education Committee aimed at punishing those who participate in the sick-outs, as well as punishing districts who don’t punish educators who participate in the sick-outs.

Senator Pavlov would have you believe that these bills are all about protecting kids, and getting them the education that they deserve. He says he’s identified gaps in the current strike laws in Michigan, “And so, we want to make sure we close those gaps for the good of the kids.”

It sounds noble enough, until you realize that Pavlov is refusing to address why DPS educators feel the need to protest. As I covered in a previous post, many DPS facilities are literally falling apart. Teachers are getting sick thanks to black mold. Parts of buildings are off-limits to everybody because they’ve fallen into such a serious state of disrepair. Senator Pavlov, how exactly is forcing students and teachers to try to accomplish anything meaningful in such a harmful environment good for the kids?

Suppose the Michigan Legislature actually passes these awful bills, what next? It’s not like there’s a teacher surplus in Detroit. These protesting teachers are standing up because they are literally the only advocate that many of these students have. If they are forced out, if they have their certification revoked, there’s not a line of people waiting to fight for these kids. Striking is literally a last resort for educators, an option that does not get pursued unless all other avenues have failed.

This open letter from a Renaissance High School student illustrates how these bills will just make a terrible situation even worse.

When you have lost these teachers, how will you replace them? Who wants to work in a school district where ceilings fall on student’s heads, and mushrooms grow in the hallways? I did not have an English teacher for the first
four months of school, and last year I did not have a French teacher the whole first semester. With a history of all these vacancies, how will firing 23 teachers help your case at all.

Rather than meet these problems head on and produce a beneficial solution, Senator Pavlov and those like him have chosen to instead punish the very people working to fix these problems. They have clearly stated that they believe silencing the teachers means that the problems with DPS will cease.

Any legislator who votes in support of these bills is not a friend of education, or the students they claim to support. I urge you to contact your legislator and tell them to vote against these awful bills. Encourage them to instead use their energy and influence to come up with solutions.

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The Trombonist’s Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Reflections on a student teacher, week one: Primum non nocere

First, do no harm.

My first ever student teacher started with me one week ago, and that phrase has been on my mind a lot. I want him to be able to get his hands dirty, I want him to understand everything that goes into a teacher’s day beyond just teaching, I want him to understand what it’s like to be an educator in today’s political climate. And I want to do all of this without terrifying him.

I know, right?

After just a week, it’s clear that the whole placement is going to be a balancing act. Explaining some of the challenges one might face as a beginning teacher is fine. Drowning him in pessimism thanks to budget cuts and nasty public attacks on teachers is probably less okay. I can get pretty outspoken about the negative perception of education today, but it would be harmful for me to let that discourage a young, enthusiastic teacher.

Watching somebody else teach in my classroom, working with my kids, is also a surreal experience. That has made me consciously think about why I do things the way I do, because he’s watching me teach as well, and asking questions. There are times where I’ll want to jump in and make a suggestion, but I recognize that doing so would disrupt the learning process for both my students and my student teacher. Instead, I take notes and we debrief after class. I’m not trying to say I want to jump in because he’s doing poorly; quite the opposite. I want to jump in because I’ve known these kids for 2-3 years and I understand how they operate. He’ll develop that with time though, so I take notes instead.

An unexpected benefit of welcoming a student teacher into the classroom has been a boost in my own energy each day. There are opportunities to split classes up into smaller groups, I’ve been able to grab a secondary instrument and play along with my students for long chunks of time while not on the podium, and it’s another person to closely collaborate with each day.

Seven more weeks to go, and I’ll try to post a regular reflection each week.