One step forward, two steps back: Miraculous educator response to global crisis not all that miraculous

Immediately after state and district officials announced school closings, educators responded. And their response, though met with enthusiasm by colleagues, authors, researchers, and parents, is currently being undermined by authority figures who cannot fathom handing over the reins to those who actually have answers: teachers.

Many have expressed surprise over the education community’s nearly instantaneous mobilization following the closing of schools across the U.S. Even before official announcements of school closures, the collective response of teachers across the country was nothing short of inspirational.

Blogs were posted. Lessons were shared. Scores of ideas to take learning from brick-and-mortar classrooms to online platforms seemed to sprout, grow, and bloom almost overnight.

Teachers were quick to share ideas with parents and their educator counterparts in order to take rich, effective, research-based instructional practice from the classroom to an online setting. Many offered links to learning resources for parents, including free audio books and read-alouds. Others offered assistance to families by volunteering to deliver food from local food pantries and books from their own classroom libraries. Teachers almost instantaneously turned the Internet into a treasure trove of distance learning opportunities — without being asked to do so.

Miraculous, isn’t it? Yes, and no.

I’m not surprised. Not at all. Most people who enter the teaching profession do so for one of two reasons (or maybe a combination of the two): 1. They have a passion for teaching children and changing lives. 2. They are lifelong learners, future practitioner-researchers with a strong desire to enter a knowledge profession.

Passion and a thirst for knowledge are what keep teachers in classrooms even when their professional autonomy – the engine that drives the two reasons they entered the profession — is continuously stripped away and replaced with micromanaged, lockstep, standardized mandates.

And so, when faced with an education challenge while temporarily freed from authoritarian constraints, teachers did what they were intended to do; individually and collectively, they reached into their overflowing professional toolboxes to respond by providing thoughtful, effective instruction for their students.

Not shocking. Not. At. All. Teachers simply acted like… teachers.

One of the reasons so many were shocked by the impressive display is that so many have been indoctrinated by decades of systematic measures designed to de-professionalize the teaching profession. Toxic federal and state mandates based on an antiquated top-down management style and supported by standardized testing have all but silenced the voices of passion, reason, and sound practice.

COVID-19 changed all of that — for a few days. Teachers suddenly found themselves free of what researcher and literacy giant Ken Goodman once called “the pedagogy of the absurd.” Educators responded. And their response, though met with enthusiasm by colleagues, authors, researchers, and parents, is currently being undermined by authority figures who cannot fathom handing over the reins to those who actually have answers: teachers.

States and school districts reacted as predicted — with the same forceful, authoritarian attitudes born of standardization doctrine and perfected in the decades following NCLB. Teachers responded quickly and provided answers, and many of their school districts rushed to play catch-up in the days that followed by forcing upon them a never-ending barrage of time- and energy-draining “accountability” mandates.

Passionate educators responded to the crisis immediately, and their state/district leadership followed by dragging them back to the status quo: “We will make the decisions. We are the professionals. You are the workers who will implement what we dictate to you and prove to us you have done so.”

Rediscovered professional autonomy was immediately met by the same forceful constraints that have served to undermine the profession for decades.

Teachers who face such mandates find themselves once again disappointed, dejected, demoralized. They find themselves fighting back tears as the research-based instruction they had so thoughtfully planned is replaced with automated systems based solely on quantitative measures. They find themselves working 12- and 15-hour days in order to continue providing the kind of high-quality instruction they know their students need while at the same time meeting useless demands intended only as measures of compliance.

Fortunately, many districts have responded in reasonable, thoughtful ways. I applaud them. But unfortunately, many others have returned to what they know: lockstep authoritarianism — count the minutes you are online; document every conversation you have with every child; spend hours on useless paperwork so we can prove you are doing your job.

No, I’m not surprised by the almost magical response of passionate educators who continued providing the highest levels of instruction in the face of a global pandemic. And I’m also not surprised by the response of state and district officials who immediately rushed to maintain a sense of control and compliance. And to the latter, I say…

Teachers took a step forward. Please stop forcing them to take two steps back.

Coffee chat with award-winning author Kathi Appelt!

Kathi Appelt, award-winning author of more than 30 books for children and young adults, chats with me about the impact of extended isolation during the current quarantine, the importance of giving students the freedom to choose what they want to read, and the power of fiction stories to grow a more empathetic world.

Angel Thieves Giveaway

Kathi has generously offered to send signed copies of her newest book, Angel Thieves, to three lucky viewers! Please comment below and include an email addess (contact information will not be shared publicly) and then share this post on Facebook or Twitter. I will select three viewers at random and notify you via email or Facebook Messenger.

Coming soon: Author chat with award-winning poet, author, and teacher, Kathi Appelt!

Kathi Appelt, award-winning author of such notable children’s books as The Underneath and Maybe a Fox, joins me this week to chat about reading and writing instruction, distance learning, the creative process, and much more! Look for our coffee chat this Friday morning!

Coffee chat with Cyndi Marko, author/illustrator of the Scholastic series, Kung Pow Chicken

Cyndi Marko, author/illustrator of the Scholastic series Kung Pow Chicken, chats with me about her creative process, the power of graphic novels, and creativity in a time of extreme isolation.

Teachers, parents, and students: Cyndi has generously offered to share a few tips for anyone who may want to try their hand at creating graphic novels in the form of a spectacularly groovy comic called The Graphic Adventures of Stick Boy! Download it here for free!

Kung Pow Chicken Giveaway!

Scroll down to the share button and share this post on Facebook, then leave a comment below and include your email address for a chance to win the entire Kung Pow Chicken series (email addresses will not be posted publicly). The winner will be notified via email or Facebook Messenger this Sunday!

Extended school year hype most likely spurred by press release shortcut

News reporters with zero experience in education should leave the reporting to those who have a clue — educators. Instead, print and broadcast media outlets routinely trust misinformed, generalist reporters who are easily manipulated by lobbyists and special interest groups via strategic public relations campaigns. Texas children, teachers, and parents pay the price as misguided reporting directly influences public support for toxic education policies.

Case in point: Texas Districts Push to Extend the School Year appeared in the online version of The Houston Chronicle this week. The headline certainly grabbed my attention along with that of many of my educator friends. And so I read on… What I found was beyond frustrating: news reporting on critical education policy that was most likely copied and pasted from a press release.

The lead takes the cake.

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers are thinking about giving school districts money to lengthen the school year, and superintendents are for it.

By the time I finish reading the headline and the first sentence of the piece, here is what I have learned as a reader: School districts in Texas want an extended school year. Lawmakers are considering a longer year but they aren’t certain. Superintendents across the state support a longer school year. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

Hold that terrifying thought while we review some background…

Prior to entering the world of education, I spent about 15 years as a writer and editor for a variety of media outlets. At the time, print newspapers were still alive and kicking. The emergence of online news was certainly a concern, but the Internet had yet to inflict much damage on print media outlets.

Here’s the thing about being a rookie news reporter. Most news reporters are “generalists.” They are trained to collect information, conduct interviews, and write hard news — the basics of journalism. Upon entering the profession, they are assigned a “beat” (an area of coverage), but seldom will you find news reporters at mid-sized newspapers like The Houston Chronicle or The Dallas Morning News who specialize in a specific content area — education veteran covering education or lawyer covering crime and courts.

The learning curve is often too much to overcome, so reporters do whatever it takes to produce copy quickly and efficiently by seeking help from outside sources.

And in steps the almighty press release. Hard news reporters rely upon communications departments, public relations writers, and marketing specialists to fill the gaps.

This strategy isn’t always a bad thing. A press release can simply be a way to notify the newspaper of an upcoming or recent event. Problems arise, however, when the press release is used by special interests to further a cause, and in a rush to meet a deadline or byline quota, the reporter fails to do his or her due diligence.

In today’s under-staffed newsroom, the toxicity of the “press release shortcut” now infects more than the rookie reporter; veterans who should know better are no longer immune. The reporter who wrote the extended school year article, for example, is certainly no rookie — at least not according to the qualifications listed in her bio on the Chronicle’s website.

How does this look in a newsroom?

Reporter receives an email from a school district’s communications department. The email includes a press release complete with a suggested headline and quote — and sometimes accompanying photographs, depending on the nature of the story. The reporter then re-writes the press release, adding a few supporting facts and maybe a quote or two he or she managed to obtain via a couple of quick phone calls. Presto! The magic of pseudo journalism!

The implications for education policy are disastrous. Misinformed generalist reporters across the nation are inadvertently acting as public relations specialists for lawmakers, education market reformers, and others whose aim is to dismantle public education, de-professionalize teaching, and pour public dollars into the coffers of greedy corporations.

And that brings us back to the misleading article.

“We’re not keeping our students long enough throughout the year,” Dr. Xavier De La Torre, a superintendent in El Paso, told the committee on Tuesday. He represents the state’s largest school districts for the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth.

I find it disturbing an education reporter from Houston, who claims Houston ISD supports an extended school year, failed to interview the superintendent of Houston ISD. I can infer from this misstep the writer most likely relied on information she received from a press release or communications department — sources obviously advocating for a longer school year.

The article states “several superintendents testified,” but De La Torre, the superintendent of Ysleta Independent School District (another fact not mentioned in the piece), is the only source quoted in the story. The writer refers to him as a representative of the states’s largest school districts — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. In short, she implies by omission of information superintendents at the largest school districts support a longer school year.

Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. We don’t know because apparently the newspaper failed to contact any of them. Irresponsible at best.

The article’s closing line is just as infuriating as its first:

So far, the three top leaders in state government have made no push for extending the school day, instead focusing on other initiatives such as boosting pay for teachers.

Here is what I can infer from the closing line of the article: Texas Districts Push to Extend the School Year is not a story. It was contrived from either a press release or a nudge from a niche group of education “reformers.” Even the article makes clear state lawmakers are focused on ruining education in other ways — merit pay tied to standardized testing (or as the Chronicle calls it, “boosting pay for teachers”).

And so… I have some unanswered questions:

  1. If “districts” are pushing for an extended school year and “superintendents” are all for it, who the hell are they?
  2. Does De La Torre speak directly for the superintendents of Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston ISD? Do they all support adding 30 instructional days to the school year?
  3. Did news reporter Andrea Zelinski attend the hearing? If not, how many sources did she contact and who were they?
  4. Did Zelinski generate most of this piece from a press release she received either from The Texas Urban Council of Superintendents or from another group?
  5. If the aforementioned school districts do not support an extended school year, when will the Houston Chronicle run either a retraction or clarification?

I attempted to contact Zelinski via phone and email but had no luck reaching her. Repeated calls to the paper’s city desk line went unanswered. I also left a detailed voicemail message for the Chronicle’s reader representative regarding the need for a clarification (and requesting a return call). No response.

Newspapers like the Chronicle and Dallas Morning News are shells of what they once were. Newsrooms once bustling with hundreds of reporters and editors have now been reduced to a small handful of staff writers. As a result, reporters are under even more pressure to churn out copy quickly and efficiently.

But being under-staffed and overworked is no excuse. Public education is under attack. Those who control the ink have a great responsibility to revise and edit their words and ideas with extra care in order to ensure fairness and accuracy. Get it right, or stop meddling in education policy.

UPDATE: an ABC affiliate confirmed my suspicions tonight when they ran the same story almost word for word. This article was most likely generated from a press release with little to no actual journalism involved.

Here is a link to the Houston Chronicle article:

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