Meandering

Many complaints

Saturday 11 January 2020 ~ 1523

As if to reinforce what I wrote about this morning – or to prove once again the power of confirmation bias – I came across this article promoted on Facebook from “The Educator’s Room” titled All Of The Good Teachers Have Already Quit… Or Are Thinking About It.

I’m going to ignore the hyperbolic ranting that starts with the headline and continues with a series of anecdotes supporting the premise. What I found interesting were the comments following the article, which pointed finger here and there throughout the process, with all of the predictable villains confronted by noble teachers, blah blah blah. Insolent students. Apathetic parents. Overworked and underpaid. Clueless administrators. Malign superintendents. It’s quite a list, and apparently everyone is to blame, except for the comment writer, who is bravely pursuing the lonely task of passing knowledge to the next generation.

The writer of the article calls the problem the corporate focus, but as someone who spent the first half of his working life in the private sector, my observation is that there’s nothing corporate about the organization of the school. Not only did I see people routinely get fired, often for minor infractions, in the private sector, I’ve also been fired myself for offenses like missing a meeting and not cleaning part of an RV (through inattention) when asked to do so. I could spend all day listing the minor and major incidents I’ve seen in various school districts as an education reporter and as a teacher in several communities which would have been immediate dismissal in a corporate environment. The two kinds of organizations operate with different standards. Schools have to deal with a fusillade of rules, regulations, laws, and contractual obligations that the corporate world doesn’t have to deal with, even in our era’s litigiousness and the ubiquitous human resources department. Corporations care about the bottom line, meaning the need to stay alive against aggressive competitors. Schools will remain in operation no matter how they’re run, like city government or the IRS, and that truth changes how people work in those environments.

What this all means for me is a realization of the landscape in which I am walking. The public schools in their current form have evolved over the past 150 years into what they are, and all of my complaining and carping isn’t going to change the organizational structure. Working as a teacher is akin to working in the military. There’s a structure, there’s a chain of command, decisions are made for unclear reasons, or even stupid reasons, politics is rampant among the officers, and sometimes you’re asked to go up a hill that you don’t want to go up. I can add my complaints to the comments section, or I can understand where I currently stand.


Regression to the mean

Saturday 11 January 2020 ~ 1009

The video describes the journey of Dr. Bonnie Shaver-Troup, who sought to describe in her research the best font for readability. Two things stand out in the video, besides the interesting history of fonts from Gutenberg to the present day.

According to the video, Dr. Shaver-Troup brought up the idea to studying the impact of font on readability in the 1990s. In my classroom, this is a topic we learn about, but in the context to advertising and marketing. Somewhere along the line I learned about font thickness, color, ledding, and serif, and when the students are creating PowerPoints, I’m always admonishing them to create a presentation that is easily readable, especially at a distance for those moments presenting on a screen in the front of the room.

The first standout factoid from the video is the claim that Dr. Shaver-Troup’s proposal to study the impact of fonts on readability was rejected by her institution. One of the most fascinating observations that I’ve learned from all these years of working in academia is the regressive nature of the institutional structure. That’s not to say that I haven’t worked with wonderful, quirky, eccentric, and imaginative educators, and many people with huge hearts willing to adjust on a dime to meet the immediate needs of their students. The structure of the organization, though, is another animal. New ideas are routinely rejected, or take years to implement. Risk-taking is too risky to risk much of time. As someone with tenure, it is depressing to report that the way tenure is structured allows me to hunker down and reject change, too. Rules, laws, regulations, and policy determine the direction of progress. Slow and deliberate. Meeting, discussions, reports. It isn’t like this outside government – think Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs. Competition and the market promote innovation.

Objects on the page arranged for readability. When the structure is predictable throughout the document, it’s easier to understand.

Two summers ago I had the pleasure of reformatting the Galena City School District board policy manual. It’s the sort of work I’ve come to enjoy, and I worked through 700 pages or so, adjusting typeface and presentation. I’m proud of the good work I did there; a reader would easily be able to navigate the document and understand the structure of board policy as reflected in how words, sentences, and typeface were purposefully matched to important categories, such as the date of approval or the relationship between specific policy. Just thinking about it makes me smile.

I also got to read the entire policy, several times. Stupendous efforts are made to determine policy for every imagined circumstance, written using language meant to convey precision. Of course, that effort is designed for failure. Individual conduct and the chaos of real life mean that there’s always going to be some exception somewhere or some exigency in circumstances. I would stop every once in a while reading the policy imagining how it would have been applied in some of the situations I’ve had as a teacher. And thus lawyers were born to navigate the unseen dimensions between the sentences in policy.

My guess is that the glacial pace of new ideas in education comes from hitting the thick wall of policy proscriptions. I remember once Pres. Reagan came to Congress with a tall stack of thick manuals containing all federal regulations. If you want to do something innovative, we need to check the regs, and the regs are so dense that review takes a long time, and sometimes forever.

Dr. Shaver-Troup eventually found allies in business, where there are many regulations imposed on them from the outside, but few impediments inside, and eventually she was able to conduct research and emerge with Lexend, designed to improve readability. She makes the bold claim that using Lexend in text significantly improves comprehension.

That’s the second standout from this video. She did not give up. When her ideas were rebuffed, she persisted. For me, that’s often the hobgoblin in my attitude. My confidence can be easily deflated, which has happened often in my life. I wish that wasn’t a part of my character. But there’s also a stubborn part that doesn’t like giving up.


The technocratic dreamworld

4 January 2020 ~ 0930

Apparently technocracy was a political movement in the 1930s

A recent Atlantic Monthly had a fascinating article from Danielle Allen about citizenship and factionalism, including a brief description about the technocrats currently making policy throughout our society. One sentence stood out:

The technocratic way of thinking has affected everything from homeownership to the quality of schools, from income distribution to the rights of workers, from insurance rates to the legal system.

The Wikipedia entry for technocracy describes a system of government in which experts with specific skills determine policy, proposed by early socialist thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon and Thorstein Veblen. An interesting tidbit in the Wikipedia entry is the statement that most of the Chinese communist party technocrat apparatchiks used to be engineers, but in the current era, more than 80 percent have technical training in education. Daniel Bell cites Saint-Simon in the Wikipedia entry as saying technocracy would be “a system of planning and rational order.”

Certainly that’s how the vision is presented in the schools. Education experts apply scientific practices to best teach students. In fact, many practices presented this way work really well on the ground. Our school used to hire PEAK Learning Systems as management consultants, and those from PEAK whom I worked with provided me with extraordinarily solid research that works well with real students.

PEAK worked well because of the way it was structured in the classroom. Teachers would learn techniques and methods, with the added knowledge that positive relationships with students leavened with kindness, focused presentations, and professional demeanor was the foundation for good teaching. Yes, it was a technocratic system, but the individual teacher was provided room to transcend the technocracy and treat students as human beings worthy of dignity.

Certainly my current assignment is not exceptional when it comes to a technocratic organizational structure. I was an education reporter for years before arriving as a teacher in the classroom, and I’ve worked in three different districts. The notion of experts determining curriculum, methods, and organization was similar in every school district. According to studies I’ve read for my master degrees, successfully run school districts were successful due to experts applying well-researched institutional changes. There were no examples of teachers gathering together to create a new school or parents forming a new way to teach children. Experts rule the roost. The Wikipedia entry concludes with a critique of technocracy:

Critics have suggested that a “technocratic divide” exists between a governing body controlled to varying extents by technocrats, and members of the general public…. The central challenge raised by these divides is that technocrats provide privilege to the opinions and viewpoints of technical experts, while marginalizing the opinions and viewpoints of the general public.

My observations on the ground agree with the critique. Technocrats are focused on their area of expertise, but most other people are usually focused on relationships, community, and family. I’ve sat in meetings where members of the community have venomously disdained school administrators for lying and deception, and now I think I understand the schism, even though watching the rancor was one of the most awful experiences of my lifetime. The technocrat administrator uses jargon and hedges bets with vague language to establish expertise, which is seen by an ordinary person as evasion and lies. Even worse, I’ve seen those who think of themselves as experts speak about students, parents, and the community as an uneducated rabble.

Did this split between the schools and town happen when I was a child in Connecticut? Perhaps it did, but I’m willing to bet that the sense of community was far more intense than the present day. Teachers would serve the community for decades, at least in my memory. I have no data, but I have memories of being in a classroom in which solid learning took place with a teacher who knew us as individual human beings, over many years, with a keen sense of what it meant to live in the community.

My current school district was like this when I first arrived in 2001. Many teachers had been here for years. In an interesting way, it was the experience I had with the media flipped on its head. Teachers were part of the community, while administration technocrati came and went. As a result, that technocratic divide became a clash of citizens and administrators. In 2020, there are still teachers who have taught for two or more decades in our school, but an increasing number of teachers stay for a little while and move on.

The technocracy of the schools also allows me to understand my failure trying to involve myself with the development of social media in the district. The technocrats and experts in the district don’t see me as someone with knowledge which would serve the district; instead, as a teacher, I’m an outsider who can and should be marginalized simply as an expression of my position in the organizational structure. It’s not personal. I once asked to help administrate a district Facebook page, and my administrator at the time sent out a schoolwide email declaring that a certain staff member was the person in charge. I had asked to help, to be included, and the response was hyperbolic. I had no intention of “taking over.” In other words, the district had a technical expert in place, and it was imprudent of me to even ask to be included. I wrote my master’s thesis on the establishment of social media policy in a school district, and in retrospect, the technocratic impulse is powerful even in school districts that meet the needs of its community.

I kept asking, for years, to help with district social media, putting on the table evidence of advanced degrees, experience, and interest, to no avail, and I eventually gave up. This is not an indictment of the current school system. Many people I work with are good people. I think that the answer would be the same everywhere. Technocratic bureaucracy in practice limits the progress of people and ideas, which would no doubt surprise Thorstein Veblen.

The death of print media and the decline in American education both reflect the growing impact of technocracy in those professions, which I’ve seen from the inside. Technical experts are not the same thing as community supporters, friends, or family. Communication requires both a sender and receiver, and when the sender is detached from the community, the message is lost. Teaching requires an understanding of local culture and good relationships with students, which takes years to accomplish, and when teachers spend a few years here and few years there, learning suffers.

Portmeirion, the Welsh village used as the set of the television show “The Prisoner”

When I first started my second career as a teacher, I dreamt that I was in an episode of The Prisoner, the cult classic from the 1960s about an ex-spy trapped in an elaborate prison dressed up like a Welsh village where he was only known as Number 6. I dreamt that I was in a school, where I was reduced to a number. Thematically, this was the most accurate dream I’ve ever had of the educational system. I’m a cog in a giant machine, run by experts, making decisions outside my control, although the cliche still holds that the classroom is mine once I close the door. I wish we were a community, but technocrats don’t do communities.


Technocrati

This looks like the Staten Island ferry.

3 January 2020 ~ 1839

Another nugget of thought prompted by the Dec. 2019 issue of the Atlantic Monthly that I purchased while I was in Fairbanks for the colonoscopy. Danielle Allen’s The Road From Serfdom focuses on citizenship and the dangers of factionalism, describing various societal forces which have overwhelmed the “old informal Constitution,” a list that concludes with the emergence of the technocrat as the primary decision makers for public policy.

The technocratic way of thinking has affected everything from homeownership to the quality of schools, from income distribution to the rights of workers, from insurance rates to the legal system. All of these issues get talked about as if they were still the central domain of politics, and as if elected officials actually dealt with them, but in fact they are being addressed (or left unaddressed) by the technocratic class—the people sometimes derided as policy wonks. The sprawling nature of the modern state may have its roots in political decisions made, willy-nilly, at various points in the past, but its evolution and management are largely detached from politics. 

The paragraph sparked interesting memories. I started writing for the Niantic News when woolly mammoths grazed nearby; the newspaper was owned locally by a group called Shore Line Times Company. It was a little weekly, read by everyone in the community, if I remember it correctly. Cute puppies. School events. Fishing news. A decade later, I’m at the Ketchikan Daily News, run with passion by Lew Williams, a man who was raised in Southeast. I always felt as if he considered himself and the community as one in the same. A beautiful man. A mentor, especially as it regards steadiness amid mayhem. The career pushed forward. The Polk County Itemizer-Observer. The Sonora Union-Democrat. The Keizer Times. And finally The Frontiersman in Wasilla. Here was the place where I finally worked with my first technocrat.

Maybe not surprisingly, the first time he appeared in the office, I was told he was the tech guy looking at the computer system. Well dressed, inappropriately so, and brisk, direct, concerned with guidelines. I remember coming in late for a meeting he put together and getting a tongue lashing of some sort, from which I walked out, but not before saying that I didn’t get paid to be abused. I’ve since used that line a few other times in my life. He left after a week.

In any case, a few months later he showed up again, this time to take the helm as publisher, and sure enough, I was fired a short time later, which was a blessing, as I was tired of the newspaper business and had already considered becoming a teacher.

In retrospect, the arrival of the technocrats in the print media was a metaphor for the death of the newspaper, and I played my part as a technocrati functionary, filled with college degrees, a way with words, and overblown self-importance. I wandered from paper to paper every few years, an acceptable enough practice that I wasn’t deterred from repeating it throughout my career. I was expected to drop in and start reporting, but it was usually under the watchful eye of Lew or Dave or Les, who had deep knowledge of the place gained from a lifetime of observation. Finally, at The Frontiersman, that local watchful eye was gone as well.

When I began the journalism career, I carried a copy of a saying attributed to Horace Greeley:

Make your newspaper a perfect mirror for the community it serves.

That quote may not be precise, but it’s close enough to get the idea. Two decades into the career, by the middle 1990s, most newspapers were media McDonald’s, each packed with fairly bland news filled with commonly expected topics which read the same no matter where you were. Four decades after the Niantic News, in 2020, with most print media dead, there’s still the greasy aroma of highly educated journalism experts making decisions unconnected from local culture. I loved reading newspapers, and writing for them, and their demise is one of the things that I miss the most in the tepid embers of my memory.

The next career, though, was a technocrat dreamworld. More on that later.


Returning to my roots

30 December 2019 ~ 0932

I used to keep a journal, back when I was in high school and at American University. They’ve all vanished to the rot of time, which is probably for the best, since my recollections about the content of those journals is that they were sophomoric and potentially embarrassing. I’ve heard about the so-called right to be forgotten from the European Union, but other than the term, I know nothing. But I’m grateful that a lot of my life from that period of life has vanished into dusty nothingness. I sometimes worry about my students and their interconnected lives, and the possible ease with which anyone will be able to access the intimate details of their younger years. Throughout all of human history, up and including my own early adulthood, people have always had the option to get up, move away, and create a new life for themselves by re-establishing a newer and better version of themselves. How will my son, or my former students, weighted down with vast amount of data, will be able to recreate themselves if their lives have led them down a dead end or a tragic series of choices?

Service

Isabella ~ 7 July 2003

30 December 2019 ~ 0833

Isabella’s been sick for the past few days. She needed someone to take care of her, especially this weekend, when she was incapacitated by whatever illness that she contracted, and of course I stepped up to help her out. It’s what we do when you’re married. Beside the duty and obligation aspects, though, I also felt a centeredness in helping her out. The rushing thoughts of the day faded away while I was helping her fight this illness, like it was a meditation.

A lot of people sick right now in town, by the way, myself included – I have a bad case of the sniffles right now, and I was down for the count on Saturday.


Civility

Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers

27 December 2019 – 0941

Bookends about civility.

Atlantic Monthly has a beautiful article by Tom Junod, the reporter whose relationship with Fred Rogers is the subject of the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. The reporter’s recollection matches the theme of the movie pretty well, with the added bonus that the article has documentation from Mr. Rogers himself. Near the end of the article, the reporter recounts an incident from Florida where state attorney general Pam Bondi is mobbed by protesters, one of whom mentions Mr. Rogers in her condemnation of Bondi’s political decisions. Junod writes:

“Fred was a man with a vision, and his vision was of the public square, a place full of strangers, transformed by love and kindness into something like a neighborhood. That vision depended on civility, on strangers feeling welcome in the public square, and so civility couldn’t be debatable. It couldn’t be subject to politics but rather had to be the very basis of politics, along with everything else worthwhile.”

I don’t know the philosophical antecedents of this kind of thinking, but it resonates with me, and certainly has the feel of something I was taught as a small child. Perhaps it was those pesky Unitarians. As if to bookend this beautiful vision of people living together with revolutionary politeness, I came across this piece of awfulness from Samuel Freedman at Buzzfeed practically begging people to ruin the holidays because… Trump.

“It is absolutely appropriate and approvable for blood ties to be subordinated to truth-telling at this moment of existential crisis. The normal standards of etiquette deserve to be violated when the conversation topic is whether a de facto monarchy should be enshrined by the Republican senators acting as Trump’s Praetorian Guard.”

“A ruined holiday qualifies as a relatively gentle reminder that preserving the republic matters just a tiny bit more than making small talk and having proper table manners.”

I think Fred Rogers would have found something good in the person who wrote this.


Good news is no news

24 December 2019 – 1112

New York City officials are confirming that there’s a coyote living in Central Park, right in the middle of Manhattan. That’s such a wonderful story. Predators showing up in numbers large enough to explore Central Park are a sign that the ecosystem is at least somewhat stable. There’s enough pigeon and squirrel to satisfy a coyote in there. I enjoyed the way that the New Yorkers were excitedly and anxiously preparing for meeting a wild animal. Running away was one response.

The Spectator (UK) has similar news about the past 10 years being the best decade in human history, an article from which I have shamelessly lifted their subhead (“Good news is no news”) because it is brilliantly written, and kind of sums up the despair in myself as my generally sunny optimism is overwhelmed by people in popular and social media telling me the world is shit. I recently had a little health hiccup, the one that wakes you up in your mid-60s to the sweet brevity of living. My heart seems to be in good shape, although I worry about the impact my anxiety has on the heart, which is actually wry ironic humor. My colon, like the rest of me, had some unwanted growth associated with my overconsumption of generous amounts of well-prepared food, often slathered with butter. There’s a phrase in the Spectator article: famine virtually went extinct . I hadn’t thought about this, but the magazine is right – I haven’t heard about mass starvation in a long time. It’s good to know that hopefulness is not futile.


Sitting with my son

23 December 2019 ~ 1409

Jojo in the bug suit – 27 June 2005

I owe a lot to this guy. From the moment he first emerged, literally in a dream two years before I met Isabella, to right now as he’s talking about basketball, which is his passion, as ESPN shows the best game clips of the past decade. I’m such a lucky dude.