With Pass-Fail, What’s the Point of Grades? (Jack Schneider)

This opinion column appeared in New York Times, June 25, 2020

Jack Schneider (@Edu_Historian), an assistant professor of leadership in education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is the director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, countless colleges and universities shifted from to A-F grades to a pass/fail system. As officials at Wellesley College explained, the general aim in doing so is to “support one another without being required to make judgments.”

Many K-12 school districts have done the same. From Palo Alto, Calif., to Wake County, N.C., local officials have concluded that now is not the time for grades. As teachers in Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District declared, “We cannot grade with equity when students’ experiences learning at home will be so varied.” And it’s not yet clear that most schools that have made this switch will fully return to letter grades in the fall.

But not everyone is happy with this outcome.

Some parents and activists are anxious that, without grades, students won’t receive adequate feedback on their work. Others worry that altering or eliminating the traditional grading scale will undermine student motivation and reward slacking off. As one Oregon parent pointedly asked in one of many online petitions pushing for the reinstatement of letter grades, “How do I explain to my child that has great grades that she should keep working hard when anything that is D- and above will still ‘pass’? This is ridiculous.” A similar but separate concern, expressed by ambitious students and their parents, is that without letter grades students will be at a disadvantage when competing for scholarships, college admission and merit aid.

The logistical calamities presented by the coronavirus have suddenly, and forcefully, surfaced an underlying problem frequently ignored before the crisis: A-F grades serve several different purposes, and those purposes are too often in conflict with one another. Americans may come to recognize by the end of this schooling crisis that we would all be better off without letter grades.

The original aim of grading, which can be traced back several centuries to English universities like Oxford and Cambridge, was to motivate students. As educators found, students tended to work harder if there was a brass ring for them to reach. This fact became more important in the latter half of the 19th century, as an increasing number of states made schooling compulsory.

With a new influx of reluctant pupils, many K-12 teachers were faced with a challenge even greater than keeping the average students focused: maintaining the attention of students who didn’t want to be there at all. Grades, then, also became a mechanism for coercion — rewards, but also punishments, with bad grades meant to serve as a socializing source of shame.

Grades as we know them now have yet another origin too, rooted in efforts to communicate with students and their families. Feedback, as any educator knows, is essential to learning. But as class sizes grew larger in the 19th century, American teachers were increasingly pressed for time. Looking for a shortcut, many schools developed new systems for providing feedback to students. The boldest of these physically rearranged students in the classroom — hence the phrase “head of the class.” What endured, however, was the “report card,” which used pre-identified codes — like numbers or letter grades — to streamline the process of evaluation.

Unlike student seating charts, report cards could be sent home to parents, strengthening communication with families. And eventually, policy leaders realized that if grades could relate something about student learning to parents and families, they could also communicate info more broadly — to other schools, to state offices of education and to employers.

Standardized report cards, in essence, could create a national market for student knowledge and skill, in the same way that letter grades for products like grain had created commodities markets. Just as the quality of Grade A beef could be understood without firsthand knowledge, so could the quality of an A student. With the evolution of the transcript — the permanent record for storing grades — student performance could be communicated across both time and space.

But there was still a lack of uniformity. Unlike many countries where a central ministry of education directs policy across the nation’s schools, the U.S. system has always been characterized by decentralization. Subject to local control, many schools and districts used 1-100 scoring systems; others used letters; some even relied on 0-4 systems. Eventually, however, the pressure for standardization from elites led to a grand merger: A 1-100 score that could be converted into an A-F grade, which, in turn, was convertible again into a grade-point average.

The merger was highly useful for these domestic policy elites, dealing with a rapidly growing nation, who then used the new regimen to connect America’s fragmented educational system. Schools, colleges and employers could nominally work together without actually changing their independent models.

By the early 20th century, grades as we generally see them now had become a core feature of American education. But as any programmer can tell you, tasking a single technology with multiple distinct roles is a bad idea. Letter grades do several different things, none of them well, and the result undermines student learning.

Consider the fact that the permanent nature of grades makes them an incredibly high-stakes affair for students. This has a serious impact on the degree to which teachers can use grades to effectively communicate student progress. Think of how a low grade, intended to convey that a young person doesn’t yet understand a concept, will instead read to the student as an act of cruelty — an attempt to ruin her future. And the student wouldn’t necessarily be wrong to see it that way; transcripts in a self-proclaimed meritocratic world mean that grades, like diamonds, are forever.

Similarly, using letter grades as a currency across agencies and institutions has, in reality, negatively distorted student motivation for generations. Regardless of their inclination to learn, many students strive first and foremost to get good grades. This was even the case in 1918, when American economist and sociologist Thorsten Veblen observed that the pursuit of grades “progressively sterilizes all personal initiative and ambition that comes within its sweep.” And a century later, it remains true, as students scramble for prized, résumé building credentials at the expense of their own intellectual curiosity.

Americans have long been aware of the problems with the current model. Grade inflation is an epidemic, particularly at elite schools. And “grade-grubbing,” the pestering of teachers to change scores, is a scourge too. Parents complain about stressed out students haunted by the prospect of an imperfect “life-ruining” transcript. And teachers bemoan the endless grind of grading.

Yet despite these obvious problems, grades are deeply embedded into the culture and function of American education: They are used for state graduation requirements, military eligibility, community college transfers, and scholarship determinations; and they are one of the chief mechanisms for linking America’s 100,000 schools with over 5,000 colleges and universities.

In short, this grading conundrum won’t be easy to solve. But the inherent flaws of A-F grading have never been clearer. And, because of that, several sensible reform ideas — unreasonably ambitious in normal times — may offer a path forward.

One smart proposal involves the use of student portfolios. Rather than reducing everything a student has learned to a single score or letter symbol, schools and colleges might ask students to assemble evidence of what they know and can do. Models of this can be found in progressive networks of public and private schools, as well as in programs like International Baccalaureate and the Advanced Placement program. Portfolios are by no means a silver bullet, but they have a number of important strengths: emphasizing the substance of learning, encouraging revision and acknowledging the different paces at which students reach proficiency. Perhaps most importantly, they motivate students to improve their work and not merely their grades.This, of course, is only a brief sketch — a map of future prospects rather than a concrete plan. And it would require fairly unprecedented coordination across different organizations and government agencies. But the road to reform always begins with an awakening to possibility.

Our present use of grades is a matter of historical accident, not design. The result is that grades fail to advance the multiple purposes they ostensibly serve.

Pass/Fail grading — the stopgap that many have turned to in the wake of the pandemic — is not a long-term solution. The problem can only be addressed at its root. Shaken from our complacency by a crisis, perhaps we can begin the conversation about what comes next.

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It’s Ridiculous to Treat Schools Like Covid Hot Zones (David Zweig)*

This article appeared in Wired Magazine June 24, 2020.

David Zweig writes about technology and culture for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic. He is also the author of the book Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.”

On May 18, education ministers from the EU gathered on a conference call to discuss the reopening of schools. Children had been back to class for several weeks in 22 European countries, and there were no signs yet of a significant increase in Covid-19 infections. It was early still, but this was good news. More than a month later, the overall mortality rate in Europe has continued to decline. Now, as we look to the fall, the US belatedly appears keen to follow Europe’s lead.

The question of how US schools should be reopened—on what sort of schedule, with what degree of caution—has yet to be determined. But recent guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released May 16, conjures up a grim tableau of safety measures: children wearing masks throughout the day; students kept apart in class, their desks surrounded by 6-foot moats of empty space; shuttered cafeterias and decommissioned jungle gyms; canceled field trips; and attendance scattered into every other day or every other week. Reports suggest that certain US schools may even tag their kids with homing beacons, to help keep track of anyone who breaks the rules and gets too close to someone else. It seems that every measure, no matter how extreme, will be taken in an effort to keep the students and the staffers safe.

This could be a grave mistake. As children return to school this fall, we must take a careful, balanced view of all the safety measures that have been proposed and consider which are really prudent—and which might instead be punitive.

It’s certainly true that reopening our schools, however carefully, could increase transmission of the virus. Some countries that have done so—Israel and France, for instance—did see clusters of infections among students and staff. But these outbreaks were both small and expected, officials in both countries told the press; and the evidence suggests that the risks, overall, are very low.

Let’s review some facts: Children are, by and large, spared the effects of the virus. According to the latest data from the CDC, infants, little kids, and teenagers together have accounted for roughly 5 percent of all confirmed cases, and 0.06 percent of all reported deaths. The Covid-linked child inflammatory syndrome that received fervent media attention last month, while scary, has even more infinitesimal numbers. “Many serious childhood diseases are worse, both in possible outcomes and prevalence,” said Charles Schleien, chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health in New York. Russell Viner, president of the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, noted that the syndrome was not “relevant” to any discussion related to schools.

There is also a wealth of evidence that children do not transmit the virus at the same rate as adults. While experts note that the precise transmission dynamics between children, or between children and adults, are “not well understood”—and indeed, some argue that the best evidence on this question is that “we do not have enough evidence”—many tend to think that the risk of contagion is diminished. Jonas F. Ludvigsson, a pediatrician and a professor of clinical epidemiology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, reviewed the relevant research literature as of May 11 and concluded that, while it’s “highly likely” children can transmit the virus causing Covid-19, they “seldom cause outbreaks.” The World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, suggested last month that “it does seem from what we know now that children are less capable of spreading” the disease, and Kristine Macartney, director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, noted a lack of evidence that school-aged children are superspreaders in her country. A study in Ireland found “no evidence of secondary transmission of Covid-19 from children attending school.” And Kári Stefánsson, a leading researcher in Iceland, told The New Yorker that out of some 56,000 residents who have been tested, “there are only two examples where a child infected a parent. But there are lots of examples where parents infected children.” Similar conclusions were drawn in a study of families in the Netherlands.

None of this implies that Covid-19 couldn’t still spread efficiently among a school’s adults—the teachers and staff. Under any reopening plan, those who are most vulnerable to the disease should be allowed to opt out of working onsite until there is a vaccine or effective treatment. And adults who are present, when around each other, should wear masks and maintain proper social distancing. Distancing among adults may be easier to implement in schools, where teachers tend to spend their days divvied up in different rooms, than it would be in some work environments that have already reopened, such as offices, factories, and stores.

A month ago, as schools were reopening in Europe, I made the case in WIRED that the US should consider doing the same. Asking when we should reopen, though, was somewhat easier than asking how. Lots of other countries are already in agreement on the first question, but it turns out there’s no consensus whatsoever on the second. Schools’ specific safety measures vary not only from one nation to another, but also, commonly, within each nation. In Taiwan and South Korea, among other countries, plastic barriers have been placed on students’ desks, creating Lilliputian cubicles. In France, some districts have children wearing both masks and plastic face shields; while others just use masks. In Germany, masks are suggested for common areas only. In Denmark and Sweden, masks for students are not required at all. Some countries are encouraging classes to be held outdoors. (Outdoor classwork is not mentioned in the CDC guidelines, though preliminary plans for some states and counties do list this as an option.)

Which of these measures are effective and appropriate? No one knows for sure. Still, it’s possible to flag the ones that seem least necessary. For instance, the French schools that employ the belt-and-suspenders approach of having students wear both face shields and masks, are doing so in direct contrast to a letter signed by the heads of 20 of the country’s pediatric associations, which states that wearing even just a mask—never mind the face shield—“is neither necessary, nor desirable, nor reasonable” in schools for children. Meanwhile, lower schools have been open in Sweden, without masks, for the entirety of the pandemic, and there has been little evidence of major outbreaks coming out of them.

Ludvigsson told me that the widespread use of masks in schools “cannot be motivated by a need to protect children, because there is really no such need.” He’s similarly unimpressed by efforts to implement plastic barriers, playground closures, or any other measure beyond common-sense distancing and hygiene. Such precautions to prevent the spread of the infection from children to adults make no sense, he said, “since children are very unlikely to drive the pandemic.” Another Karolinska Institute epidemiologist, Carina King, said there is currently “weak evidence on children transmitting to each other or adults within school settings,” and suggested the most appropriate safety measures for schools might include testing and contact tracing, improved ventilation, and keeping students with a single group of peers throughout each day.

A report released last week by a panel of experts affiliated with the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children in partnership with the Ontario Ministry of Education, recommends against masks in class, noting that it is “not practical for a child to wear a mask properly for the duration of the school day.” The report also advises that “strict physical distancing is not practical and could cause significant psychological harm,” since playing and socializing are “central to child development.” Instead, the report recommends the adoption of smaller class sizes, so long as this does not disrupt a school’s daily schedule.

Strangely, American policy officials have not said much about the potential infeasibility and associated costs of the most extreme measures on the table. It’s not a big deal for an adult to wear a mask in a store for 15 minutes. But it’s entirely different to ask a child to wear a cloth face covering, as the CDC recommends for US schools, over many hours every day. The guidelines helpfully suggest that children “should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering.” Have these people ever been around a bunch of 7-year-olds?

One of the more ostensibly benign, but actually most consequential, measures is the spacing of desks 6 feet apart. As a practical matter, few US schools have the room to accommodate all their students being so spread out. This means many institutions will be all but required to operate at reduced capacity, with students spending up to half their time at home.

The alternating-days approach is euphemistically referred to as “blended learning.” Considering the dismal failure that “distance learning” has proven to be in much of the country this spring, it implies that students will be educated for only half the year. Kids affected by the spring’s school closures are already showing knowledge deficits—what’s being termed “the Covid-19 slide”—and the learning gaps are disproportionately wider for lower-income students. Worse, perhaps, than being off for a block of time, is the intermittence that blended learning will oblige. Students need continuity in attendance to prosper, socio-emotionally and educationally. (This problem will only be exacerbated by inevitable closures as new cases are found. None of the experts I spoke with could give clear benchmarks for what prevalence of infection should trigger a closure.)

There also has been little acknowledgement or plan for how working parents are supposed to earn a living when their children are home for half of every school day, or every other school day, or every other week. “No credible scientist, learning expert, teacher, or parent believes that children aged 5 to 10 years can meaningfully engage in online learning without considerable parental involvement,” stated an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics. Nevertheless, the prospect of having children sit alone and stare at a computer screen instead of engaging with their teachers and peers is not only a certainty for many students in the US, it’s one that some officials—such as New York governor Andrew Cuomo—have characterized as educational progress. Last month, Cuomo wondered aloud at a press briefing why, with the power of technology, the “old model” of physical classrooms still persists at all.

Blended learning appears to have become accepted as a foregone conclusion for US schools, with little acknowledgement of how radical it is.

When students are actually in the schools, the overarching theme will be one of isolation: desks spaced apart and turned to face the same direction; closure of communal areas such as dining halls; staggered arrival and departure times to avoid any socializing before and after school; limited extracurricular activities; low-occupancy buses with one child per bench, seated in every other row. This deprivation of touch and physical proximity to others is unhealthy in the short term. Over a span of many months (and perhaps more than a year), one must imagine an existential toll on children when their physical experience with each other is that of repelling magnets.

In theory, many US schools could choose to avoid the most oppressive measures. The CDC itself presents a graded set of safety rules—some for “distancing,” others for “enhanced distancing”—that are meant to correspond to different levels of disease risk in the community. The phrases if possible and if feasible are peppered throughout the document, which also notes that “all decisions about following these recommendations should be made in collaboration with local health officials and other state and local authorities.”

But veering from the CDC’s or states’ advice would require a renegade spirit not likely to be found among those who’ve risen in such bureaucracies. While hedged language empowers localities to make choices on their own, an official guideline that suggests doing something “if possible” is like a mafioso asking a shopkeeper to do him “a favor.” I live in New York state, where guidelines for reopening have not yet been issued by the governor’s office. Yet the superintendent of my district’s schools has already sent an email to parents suggesting that we procure face shields for our children for the fall.

When much of the world reopened their schools this past spring, America neglected to follow. Now, the US seems eager to copy the most excessive measures implemented elsewhere, despite the evidence of minimal pediatric risk and infectiousness, and against the advice of many epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, and pediatricians, and with a seeming obliviousness to their costs.

For years, many schools have had their drama and arts departments budgets reduced. It would be a sour irony if mandatory masks, half-vacant school buses, and shuttered jungle gyms ended up as our schools’ most grand theatrical production.

_____________________

*Thanks to Sondra Cuban for sending me this article.

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Graduating High School in Birmingham, Alabama during Covid-19 (Emma Goldberg)

This article appeared in the New York Times, June 23, 2020

Growing up, Ashley Reynolds grew accustomed to marking rites of passage in the shadow of her older brother’s ghost.  
Her brother, Jeff Jr., named for their father, was shot at a house party when he was 18 and Reynolds was 3. On every birthday and holiday since, Reynolds has felt a sense of grief mingling with her joy, because she knows her parents wish that Jeff Jr. could be there to celebrate too. (He would have now been 33.)
But high school graduation was supposed to be Reynolds’s day alone. She would be the first of her mother’s children to cross that stage. She imagined that her parents would be cheering, and she might start to cry. She started counting down the days at the start of her senior year. Then coronavirus came to Birmingham, Ala. — and just like that, her graduation ceremony was in jeopardy.  
“You ever just feel like giving up?” Reynolds, 18, said, in an interview in early May. “I feel like I’m letting my family down by not walking across the stage because my brother never got a chance to.”   Reynolds is one of the 3.7 million members of the class of Covid-19, America’s high school seniors who saw much of their season of festivities canceled because of the coronavirus. Throughout the early months of the pandemic, she was also one of the country’s 24 million front-line workers.

More than half of the essential work force is female, and more than a third is African-American, like Reynolds. While Reynolds’s senior year was upended, her daily shift as a fast food worker at McDonald’s, working 30 hours a week, remained.    

When the stay-at-home order took effect in Alabama, Reynolds watched with disappointment as events were taken off her calendar. School turned to remote learning. Prom was up in the air. The course she was taking to become a certified nursing assistant was suspended.   But because she was deemed an essential worker, she could not quarantine, like most of her friends and classmates. She commuted daily for her shift at McDonald’s, sanitizing her hands in the car and showering the minute she got home.

The McDonald’s was at a truck stop, primarily serving drivers making deliveries throughout the state — 300 customers a day during the height of the shutdown and 700 per day as businesses began to reopen.   The normal stresses of work — irritable customers, messy co-workers — were all amplified during the pandemic, she said. And many of Reynolds’s customers refused to follow social-distancing guidelines. They came close to Reynolds when ordering, and some of them entered without wearing masks. “They’re not understanding how serious this is,” she said. “Customers do not want to follow directions. They don’t believe in the six-feet rules.”    

She was paid $8.25 an hour and was not given hazard pay. “I felt we needed a raise working under the coronavirus,” Reynolds said. “But they didn’t give it to us.”     In April, one of Reynolds’s co-workers fell ill and left work early. The facility was closed for the day and sanitized. But Reynolds felt a pit in her stomach all day. She worried that she, too, could get sick and expose her mother, father or younger half sister, who is 7. Reynolds was relieved when she was told her co-worker did not have Covid-19.  

Reynolds worries for her parents, because their essential jobs also bring them out of their homes daily, risking their health. Her father is a car salesman, which is classified as essential work. Her mother works as a janitor at a day care system. As the virus was beginning to spread, one facility where Reynolds’s mom works her day job had to close because of a coronavirus case. “She puts her life on the line,” Reynolds said.    

Reynolds has closely followed the news on the spread of Covid-19 and its disproportionate impact on senior citizens and black people. Before her nursing course was canceled, she volunteered weekly at a local nursing home, helping the residents bathe and listening to their stories. She worries for them now as the coronavirus sweeps through the country’s nursing homes. In Alabama, 35 percent of the state’s death toll is made up of residents in long-term care facilities.    

In a happy twist, Reynolds is back to caring for the elderly: This week she began a new job, making $10.71 an hour as a nursing assistant at the home where she used to volunteer, providing comfort to the elderly who cannot receive family visits because of Covid-19.   “It’s horrible for the elders,” Reynolds said. “I can talk to my grandma tonight and if she steps outside tomorrow she can get sick.”    

And another unexpected twist: Reynolds did get a graduation after all. As Alabama began to reopen in late May, her school held a ceremony, smaller than originally planned. “It wasn’t the best thing but it was something,” she said. And she did get to celebrate with her family.     “Every child deserves a chance to be able to feel celebrated in their accomplishment,” she said.    

Now, Reynolds keeps her eyes trained on a post-pandemic future, hoping to tart classes on campus at Talladega College in the fall. She is hellbent on saving money so she can be financially independent, and buy new clothes and dorm furniture for her freshman year. She plans to study social work.   But the uncertainty still looms: whether her classes will be remote and whether that will make them tougher because she won’t be able to easily ask teachers questions about challenging material.                                              

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Whatever Happened to the Platoon School?

Huh? The Platoon School?

My hunch is that very few readers have ever heard of this widespread Progressive reform that began in Gary (IN) in 1907. Praised by John Dewey and Evelyn Dewey in 1915, the innovative way of schooling native, migrant, and immigrant children (and their parents) established by Superintendent William Wirt (who served as superintendent between 1906 and 1938) gained traction in school districts across the country. Platoon schools appeared in big cities like New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh as well as small towns throughout the second and third decades of the 20th century. By the 1940s, however, many districts had dumped the innovation although it lasted until 1960 in Gary.*

What Problems Did the Platoon School Organization Intend To Solve?

In cities where immigrant families settled to find work, schools soon became overcrowded. Many districts had to have double-sessions, that is shorter school hours, so that all students could be accommodated during the day. In some districts, superintendents turned away children because there were no more seats for them. Progressive educator William Wirt, a former student of John Dewey at the University of Chicago wanted to solve two problems: how to use a school building to its capacity and how to give children access to a full education with the arts, special subjects like music, woodworking, and physical exercise. Wirt added auditoriums, gymnasiums, music and drawing rooms to existing buildings and constructed new ones with expanded facilities beyond classrooms. Unheard of at the time.

By dividing the enrollment into two “platoons,” one group of children would take the traditional academic subjects in the morning while the other platoon would take special subjects, use the auditorium for large-group meetings of students, and exercise in the gyms. Then in the afternoons the two platoons would switch. During evenings, adults in the community would take English classes and other offering. Thus, the school was in use day and night.

What Does a Platoon School Look Like in Practice?

An enthusiast for the reform, a professor at the University of Akron (OH), wrote the following description of a “model platoon school” in 1923:

This school has an enrollment of about one thousand pupils besides the kindergarten and open-air schools which are not included in the platoon organization. The building is equipped with an excellent auditorium, a divided gymnasium, domestic science and shop rooms, and classrooms sufficient to care for the special room and home room activities. The day begins for the pupil at 8.30 and closes at 3.20 with one hour and a half for lunch time. The forenoon has six half- hour periods and the afternoon four thirty-five minute periods. The school is organized into thirty groups, making it necessary to have fifteen home rooms. Each home room takes care of two groups in the formal subjects. One group is doing special platoon work while the other group is in the home room. Ail the pupils change at the middle of half-day sessions. The rooms are so assigned that the primary pupils do not come in contact with the large pupils. Besides the fifteen home rooms there are three science rooms, three literature rooms, one music room, one art room, one music and art for primary platoon, one play room for ‘primary platoon, one auditorium, a divided gymnasium, a library, a manual training shop, and domestic science rooms for cooking and sewing….

In the home rooms the formal subjects are taught, viz., reading, writing, arithmetic, formal language, hygiene and history. Half the pupil’s day is devoted to these subjects. The seventh and eighth grades are departmentalized further by dividing the work so that four teachers by interchange of pupils among four rooms teach the various home room subjects under the following groups: (1) Arithmetic, (2) Language, (3) History, (4) Hygiene, Spelling and Writing. The science rooms are devoted to nature study in the first three grades, geography and community history in the next four grades, and everyday science in the eighth grade. In the literature rooms the supplementary reading as a basis for literary interpretation, study of poems, and appreciation of the finest literary productions and authors suitable to the grades are taught. Regular periods are assigned for library work. All special rooms are arranged to give the proper setting. The art room is arranged as an art room and the music room as a music room. In the gymnasium, girls and boys work together in formal exercises the first ten minutes of the period. Then they are separated for the rest of the period for free play and games. The auditorium is in constant us with two teachers, a man and a woman, in charge. The auditorium serves as a clearing house for the whole school in that it coordinates with all other work. The following outline of work is done in the auditorium:

Dramatization. – Stories learned in the literature and reading classes are used. Pupils are permitted to dramatize without having stories memorized. Not finished work, but opportunity for individual expression is the principal aim.

Literary Societies. – The auditorium takes charge of literary society work. All upper grade pupils take part in parliamentary practice, entertainment, debating, etc.

Visual Education. – One day per week is given to motion pictures and stereopticon views. These are correlated with geography, history, science, art and citizenship.

Music Appreciation. – This work is done with Victrola and occasional musical performances by adults who are invited in to render some of the great musical productions. There is no music teaching. Appreciation of music is the aim.

Vocational Guidance. – Upper grade boys and girls discuss various vocational activities. Talks by business and professional men introduce dif-ferent phases of professions and vocations….

This description of a “model platoon school” existed in Gary (IN) at the Froebel and Emerson Elementary Schools, places that educators from across the country came to visit. As anyone familiar the history of school reform knows, as innovations spread, conflicts and variation in the design and practice pile up. And that is what occurred with the design of the platoon school when adopted by other districts.

In New York City, for example, Alice Barrows, admirer of Superintendent William Wirt, advocated for the Platoon Plan. She convinced newly elected and reform-minded Mayor John Mitchell in 1913 who was worried about the influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and overcrowded schools, to adopt the Gary Plan and transform traditional schools into work-study-play school organization. Mitchell brought Superintendent William Wirt to NYC as a consultant to help shepherd city schools implement platoon schools.

Much rancor occurred, however, as city teachers, administrators, and parents wanted more, not less traditional schooling. In 1917, parents and students who opposed the reform rioted in the streets, stopping the Gary Plan from spreading throughout the district. New York City was an exception, however.

As one historian pointed out by the 1920s, platoon schools had spread to Detroit with 110 such schools, Pittsburgh with 75 and by the end of that decade over 200 cities in 41 states had versions of the platoon school in operation. Much variation in design of platoons occurred. Many of the features of platoon schools, particularly the number of and kind of rooms in a building, became part of the what a later generation called the “modern elementary school” (see below).

Did the Platoon School Work?

Yes, this Progressive invention did insofar as becoming an efficient model for how elementary and secondary schools should be organized and built to accommodate the interests of the “whole child.” Beginning during the Great Depression and extending into the decades following World War II, the “modern” elementary and secondary school combined a full array of academic course with in-school experiences in the arts with vocational classes where students learned to work with both their heads and hands and with opportunities for physical exercise in outdoor playgrounds and spacious indoor gyms. Today’s school buildings and curricula (including extracurricular offerings) are silent monuments to the work-study-play ideas embedded in the Platoon Plan of the early 20th century.

But some readers may be asking themselves: what about teachers, the curriculum, and test scores? Abraham Flexner and Frank Bachman conducted a study of the Gary Plan in 1917. Funded by the Rockefeller’s General Education Board, the study critiqued severely the district administration and supervision of the platoon system, the tremendous variation in what teachers did daily in their lessons, and achievement test scores in spelling, handwriting, and arithmetic. Their conclusion was that platoon schools in many instances under-performed “traditional” schools elsewhere.

Superintendent Wirt, reeling from the defeat of the Gary Plan in New York City, found the General Education Board study (1918) both inaccurate and bothersome. He need not have worried too much since the Flexner and Bachman study failed to slow down the national spread of the platoon school in the 1920s and 1930s.

What Happened to the Platoon Schools?

In Gary (IN) as Ronald Cohen documented, platoon schools grew under William Wirt and became the way that Gary schooled it children and youth. Enthusiasm for it peaked in the 1920s and 1930s with a slow demise after Wirt left office in 1938. Throughout the 1940s the once Progressive innovation faltered and by the 1950s was being dismantled in favor of what had become the modern elementary and secondary school that most readers of this post have experienced. Born in the Progressive era, the phrase, “platoon school,” may be anachronistic but it lives on in the nation’s school buildings and curriculum.

________________

*As an elementary school child in the 1940s, I attended a Pittsburgh elementary school organized into platoons.

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More Cartoons on Covid-19 Pandemic

I have selected cartoons I have not used before. Enjoy1

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Police Reform and School Reform (Part 3)

Just as a half-century ago when the Kerner Commission Report laid out a series of police reforms, cities were also in turmoil over low academic performance of minority students, traditional curricula, mostly white staffs and insensitive superintendents. Urban disturbances in 1967-1970, for example, caused school closures and rapid turnover of school chiefs then and since.

Consider New York City since 1960. Between that year and 2020, there have been 23 superintendents (later called chancellors) for an average tenure of 2.6 years. NYC might be an outlier, however. Using other major cities the Broad Foundation reported in 2018 that tenure was longer, around five years in districts with over three-quarters of student enrollment poor and minority (2018). Somewhere between three to five years has been the average term appointed superintendents have served in big cities (see here and here).

Such turnstile superintendencies, like urban police chiefs have experienced then and now, disrupt continuity in implementing reforms begun by a predecessor and depress morale of district office administrators, principals, and teachers who do the daily work of schooling.

Not only moving school chiefs in and out of the superintendent’s suite but local school boards, states, and the federal government have also legislated changes during crises that reformers believed would improve schooling for all children but particularly those of color.

Since the 1970s, for example, states have raised graduation requirements, altered curricular frameworks, introduced more standardized tests, and ratcheted up accountability regulations for students, teachers, schools, and districts. All of these state laws sought to reduce the achievement test score gap between whites and minorities, increase graduation rates, and send more low-income and minority students to colleges. The poster child for such laws is the federally-funded No Child Left Behind (2001-2016).

A bipartisan law that was endorsed and enforced by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, NCLB called for all public school students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014. The law established a federally-driven testing and accountability system managed by the states to insure that all students scored well on standardized tests. Schools meeting their numerical targets set by the law would be rewarded and those falling short would be penalized.

By 2011, the weaknesses of this federally-driven system of incentives and sanctions had become obvious to legislators–48 percent of U.S. schools had been labeled “failing.” While high school graduation rates had increased and more graduates enrolled in colleges, the achievement test score gap had hardly budged. In 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act and President Obama signed off on a law loosening federal regulations on accountability (but not testing or publishing disaggregated racial and ethnic statistics) and giving states far more latitude in designing reforms (see here).

Yet at the same time that federal and state governments have legislated changes to reduce the achievement test score gap, both have reduced funding local school districts over past decades which have led to reductions in school counselors, social workers, nurses, librarians, and community aides. Moreover, worried about in-school crime, especially, violence, urban districts either contracted with local police departments or have created their own police forces (e.g., Los Angeles Unified, New York City).

Both losses of counselors and similar staff plus increased presence of police officers in urban schools have affected students and teachers in reducing the number of adults not in uniform who had previously developed relationships with teenagers.

Finally, policy initiatives to alter racist thinking and actions in police departments have been also duplicated in district, school, and classroom cultures. Preferential treatment in dealing with whites over minorities have been identified and policy changes in some districts have been made in addressing such documented issues as:

*Tracking of minorities into certain courses,

*Minority students being suspended and disciplined at higher rates than white students,

*Large numbers of minorities identified with disabilities,

*Low percentages of minority teachers in schools with mostly children of color.

And for decades there has been efforts to identify teacher biases and behaviors who exhibit low academic expectations of those students who differ from the teacher in ethnicity, race, and social class. Such biases surface in how students are grouped within the classroom, the choice of content and skills and their level of difficulty taught to minority students, who gets called upon during class discussions, and the grades students receive (see here, here, here, and here).

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Summing Up

At two times in the past half-century, popular protests swept across the nation to erase racist biases and actions from both individuals and systems of policing and schooling. That the current moment has arisen reveals anew that the efforts of earlier protests in the 1960s to fight poverty insure that each person could vote and discrimination in public facilities was illegal made limited progress.

Those political protests a half-century ago gave voice to the voiceless opening up de facto segregated systems to minorities in police rank-and-file officers and in top posts. Similarly in school systems, protests over unequal treatment of minorities in schools and classrooms and huge gaps in academic outcomes between white and minorities led to the hiring of more teachers who resembled their students in race and ethnicity, additions to the curriculum that encompassed the history and culture of minorities, and efforts to get minority students into gifted programs and Advanced Placement courses.

While forward progress occurred, it was insufficient as the current moment reveals that another generation of police officers and teachers still behave in ways that an earlier generation would have winced at.

Contending explanations for such behavior appeared, then and now. One explanation argues that systems of policing and schooling work fine; troubles come from an unenlightened and ignorant few who display racist actions. They need to be re-educated and re-formed and all will be well.

The other explanation is that it is the larger system, economic, political, and social structures that shape behavior; racism is deeply embedded and pervasive–it is in the bloodstream of these systems. Those structural biases have to be exposed to the light of day and removed.

Currently, the U.S. President and Senate embrace the first explanation, while black and white protesters, many corporate and civic leaders, and non-governmental organizations hold fast to the second explanation.

I cannot (and will not not) predict which explanation will turn into policy as this fractured nation stumbles toward a crucial election 125 days from the recent Juneteenth celebration. The outcome, as any in a democracy, is one still being debated and in the making.

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Police Reform and School Reform (Part 2)

Public schools and police departments are core community institutions. Locally controlled, there are 18,000 police departments and over 13,000 school districts in the U.S. State legislatures and city councils levy taxes to fund these institutions. One is charged to protect and serve; the other to make responsible citizens, prepare the young for the workplace, and gain success in life. Both are crucial to the political, economic and social life of their communities.

Yet well-intentioned reformers ignore obvious similarities and differences between the two. There are, for example, historical similarities. While both tax-supported police departments and public schools began in the early decades of the 19th century and became mired in the political patronage of post-Civil War decades, the early 20th century saw Progressive reformers ending political appointments and pushing for professionalized policing and teaching.

The commonalities end there, however. The model to which police chiefs in those decades aspired to was a command-and-control organization similar to the military. Hierarchical and bureaucratic, orders flowed from the top down to the ranks of patrolmen. While police officers had street-level discretion to, say, give a warning or arrest an errant driver of a car, they had sergeants and captains who supervised their conforming to regulations.

Not so for public schools and teachers. With the move to professionalize teaching an individual medical model of helping and caring, of turning children into healthy adults became the lodestar. A well-trained and autonomous doctor working to keep patients healthy and heal the sick was the role-model. Pursuing this model as enrollments and administration grew proved unwieldy.

In cities, school districts became bifurcated: there was the central office with a board of education and superintendent in charge of a hierarchical bureaucracy, mimicking a command-and-control organization, but outside of that central office were neighborhood schools led by principals who had to give teachers a degree of autonomy once they closed their classroom doors. Teachers exercised discretion in teaching content and skills as they thought best.

Also consider race and gender for both institutions. Policing throughout most of the 20th century was dominated by white males–(while there have been black police officers, actual recruitment of minorities occurred during and after the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s). Minorities now make up about 25 percent of police forces in the U.S. Ditto for women. They entered the ranks in larger numbers beginning in the 1960s but now are only 12 percent of all department personnel. Both minorities and women in policing fall below the proportions of the populations they serve.

Public school staffing differs in some respects. Historically, women came to dominate the profession by 1900. In Northern and Southern segregated schools prior to the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of teachers were women. Higher percentages in elementary schools than secondary classroom but nonetheless, that pattern extends to the present day although percentages of female teachers have fallen to 76 percent (2018) in elementary and secondary public schools.

As for minorities in teaching, prior to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregated Southern schools had all-black staffs. Between the 1960s and the present, as those all-black schools closed, many minority teachers were reassigned but many were let go as well. Since then, districts have hired minorities but seldom enough to match the minority student enrollment of schools, particularly in urban districts. Nationally, about 20 percent (2016) of all elementary and secondary teachers are minority.

But these organizational and historical differences are often overlooked by avid reformers who, generation after generation, unhappy with unsolved problems in each institution, have put their thumbprints on what and how police and schools conduct their work.

In the current moment of national protest over police killings of unarmed black men and women, police departments are targets for reformers. Part 1 laid out the pattern of big city police commissioners exiting and reform-minded chiefs entering the post. Present reform agendas call for fundamental changes in police behavior toward people of color.

Reallocating portions of police budgets to other social agencies are being considered to shrink the long list of current expectations for the police such as dealing with the homeless, mentally ill, and school discipline. Reformers seek legislated changes to reduce excessive use of force in minority communities, and transform the biases embedded in police culture. Expanded training of officers inevitably become part of the reform package. All of these in different forms are currently being considered and acted upon by the U.S. President, Congress, some state legislatures, and many big city mayors and councils.

If the history of police reform is a guide to the future–yes, that is a big “if”–there will be changes but no transformation (see here and here). What will survive this political process of adopting new policies aimed at reforming police procedures and practices, as an informed outsider who has only scanned the literature on police reform, I cannot say. What I do know is that calls for fundamental changes in community institutions such as the police and public schools, usually end up as incremental changes, significant as they may be, but falling far short of the reform rhetoric demanding a transformed institution.

How can I say this? My involvement in and study of school reform gives me some confidence in laying out what I have learned from the history of reform in another important community institution: public schools.

Part 3 updates past school reforms that have, like police chiefs and their command-and-control organizations, led to superintendent turnover, reform-driven laws, and efforts to alter district, school and classroom cultures.

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Police Reform and School Reform (Part 1)

Amid widespread protests against police violence against African Americans, calls for reform from ending neck restraints to “defunding” police departments have monopolized TV newscasts and newspaper headlines. Social media traffic prompted by smartphone videos of incidents between police officers and blacks have gone viral. State and city officials across the nation are generating to-do lists of reforms aimed at solving the problem of police officers using lethal force to arrest minority suspects (see here and here).

White people over the age of 18 might be surprised that such cries for police reform have occurred before. But their grandparents wouldn’t.

The decade between 1965-1975 when urban “riots” (or “rebellions,” depending upon your political stance) occurred in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit, Newark, and other cities killing both blacks and whites including police officers. President Lyndon Johnson appointed the governor of Illinois, Otto Kerner, to chair a commission to investigate the racial violence. The Kerner Commission’s report (1968) condemned white racism in housing, employment, and criminal justice while offering many recommendations for police reform (see here and here).

Subsequent calls for reforming police departments to reduce excessive force against people of color have occurred after killings of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson (MO) in 2014. Then consider Minneapolis police officers have shot dead Jamar Clark (2015) and Philando Castile (2016), and choked to death George Floyd (2020). Inexorably, the uproar over such killings produces a list of must-do reforms including the resignation or dismissal of police chiefs, new laws curbing police methods being passed, and transforming the Us vs. Them organizational culture .

Consider turnover of police chiefs over the past half-century. Depending how one counts years served as police chief, tenure in big city police departments is short. For example, take New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Between 1970 and 2020, a half-century marked by rising and falling tensions between minority communities and mainly white police forces, NYPD had 16 commissioners since 1970 (mean: 3.1 years). Chicago, 13 (mean 3.8), and Los Angeles, 11 (mean 4.5). Other cities had even higher turnover such as Oakland (nine over the past decade) and Baltimore (five in the past four years as of 2019). Only in mid-size cities and rural jurisdictions does tenure of police chiefs last longer. No reader needs a Ph.D. to figure out that such turnover creates low morale among those who do the daily work on streets and in the community. Moreover, turnstile police chiefs lead to organizational instability and major difficulties of continuing reforms launched by a predecessor that seem to be working.

Mayors and city councils are currently under the triple threat of high-profile incidents of racist policing triggering marches, a pandemic that began in mid-March and continues for the foreseeable future, and impending cuts to city budgets as a result of economic recession following the plague. This convergence of events puts even more pressure on police leaders. Not only do new police chiefs have to reduce crime rates, build trust with the community, and gain respect of sworn police officers, they also have to erase racial and ethnic biases among supervisors and rank-and-file and insure adequate funding from city officials. Given this agenda for change brimming with conflicts, dumping current chiefs and hiring new ones to transform departments occur frequently.

But hiring or firing the police commissioner is only the beginning. State and city legislatures adopt laws seeking to fundamentally alter the mission of police departments and their daily practices. Some small cities such as Camden (NJ) to root out corruption in the force disbanded its police department and started a new one; cities such as Eugene (OR) have reduced the mission of police organizations through allocating budget funds to other agencies to work with, for example, the homeless, family disturbances, school discipline. Such efforts aim at making clear that the single most important goal is to insure community safety and, where possible, reduce crime. Such reform talk is rampant now.

What happened in the past is that as police chief turnover increased, fundamental reforms initially legislated by legislatures and city councils were down-sized into incremental changes (e.g., banning choke-holds, required re-training sessions on how to de-escalate conflicts in detaining citizens and arresting suspects). The culture of Us vs. Them, however, remained intact.

Whether that will occur again, I cannot say for sure but my informed guess, based upon a half-century of experience with school reform, is that it will. Shoving community institutions hard to make deep changes in their goals and practices is unenviable work and much political action, savvy, and patience are required.

Political? Yes. There are many stakeholders involved in funding police departments, shaping policies, and insuring that middle managers–captains and sergeants–put those policies into practice after precinct roll calls. After all, police chiefs secure sufficient funds from elected bodies, buffer the organization from external threats, keep bureaucrats in line, and monitor police union moves. If that isn’t enough, chiefs are responsible for building trust with the patrolmen walking beats and cruising neighborhoods. Talk about organizational conflict and politics. It is in the DNA of of being a police chief.

And this is where school reform and superintendents come into play as a comparison to the causes and solutions for problems in schooling. I take that up in Part 2.

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Moving from Teacher to Superintendent: A Political Odyssey

After teaching for fourteen years, I wanted to be an urban superintendent. To do that, I had to get a doctorate.  Accepted at Stanford as a middle-aged graduate student, I arrived in 1972 with family in tow. The two years I spent at Stanford was a powerful intellectual experience. I had told David Tyack, my adviser then, (years later my teaching colleague, co-author, and dear friend) that I wanted to get a degree swiftly and find a superintendency.

With an abiding interest in history, I pursued courses that Tyack taught in history of education but also studied political science, organizational sociology, and the economics of education. If motivation and readiness are prerequisites for learning, I had them in excess.

Moving from being a veteran teacher in Cleveland and Washington, D.C. to becoming a researcher, I had to embrace analytical thinking over personal involvement, generalizations over particular facts. Through graduate work I discovered connections with the past, seeing theories at work in what I had done and, most important to me, coming to see the world of schooling, past and present, through political, sociological, economic, and organizational lenses. These analytic tools drove me to re-examine my teaching and administrative experiences. Informative lectures, long discussions with other students, close contact with a handful of professors, and working on a dissertation about three big city superintendents  made the two years an intensely satisfying experience.

David Tyack’s patient and insightful prodding through well-aimed questions turned archival research and writing the dissertation into an intellectual high. I learned from Tyack to frame historical questions into puzzles to be solved, even if they ran counter to mainstream interpretations.

From theorist Jim March I learned the importance of seeing organizations in multiple ways, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is the natural order of organizations. So whenever I hear from superintendents and principals who found their graduate preparation insufferable, I recall how different my experiences were. Those two years at Stanford turned out to be first-rate preparation for the next seven years I served as a superintendent.

After being turned down by 50 (not a typo) school boards, I lucked out when a reform-minded (and risk-taking) school board appointed me school chief in Arlington in 1974, a city of around 160,000 population at that time, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.

For seven years I worked within a district experiencing shrinking enrollment, test scores declines, and becoming culturally diverse. The school board and I framed the central problem as the public’s loss of confidence in the district. The tasks were to reverse the downward spiral in academic achievement as numbers of minority children increased. 

With Board approval, I embarked on closely overseeing each school’s performance with specific measures assessing progress toward school board goals (e.g., increased academic achievement, critical thinking skills, growth in the arts and humanities, and community involvement).  The board and I  believed that steady pressure on school staffs wedded to ample support of teachers and principals, would lift achievement, reach the goals we set, and renew community confidence in its schools. State test results marched steadily upward, local metrics on other goals showed improvement, and parent surveys documented growing support for Arlington schools. Does sound a bit too rosy.

Here comes the “but.” Within that big picture of success, school board and superintendent policy initiatives to close small schools in the district and launch innovations aimed at changing  both school practices and the culture of the system stirred up fierce political conflicts, particularly during two economic recessions. Heading a complex organization with multiple stakeholders inside and outside the system stretched my skills and knowledge to a breaking point. During crises I learned the hard way about managing dilemmas and negotiating political and organizational trade-offs between prized district goals.

In 1981, a newly appointed school board with a majority of conservative voices had taken office. They wanted a school chief more in sync with their values than I was. I completed my contract and departed for Stanford University to teach graduate students, do research, and write.

In those seven years as superintendent, I learned the difference between solving problems and managing dilemmas that won’t go away. I found out that reforms needed jump-starting in a system but once initiated had to be prodded, elaborated, massaged and adapted as they entered schools and were put into classroom practice. In short, I learned that any successful district reform was as much political analysis, building coalitions, and mobilizing public support as it was having resources to do the job.

I also learned that problems of low achievement were intricately connected to what families and students brought with them to schools, what teachers did in their classrooms, how principals worked in their schools, and how boards and superintendents finessed (or fouled up) the intersecting political, social, and economic interests of various stakeholders. Schooling was far more complex  than I had ever envisioned when I was a teacher.

Most of all, my years as superintendent made me allergic to those who offered me then (and even now) fairy tale solutions—kissing a frog to get a prince–to improving schools and districts. I returned to academia fully aware of the complex world in which districts, schools, and classrooms operated.

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How a Taxi Ride Changed My Life (Ed Bridges)

June is commencement time for American students and nearly all will be done remotely. Commencement speeches are a genre unto themselves. Occasionally, a talk doe not follow the well-worn ruts. A professor I knew well gave one such speech a few years ago.

Ed Bridges was Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University. His focus on educational administration, leadership, principal preparation, and problem-based learning earned him the respect of both students and educators globally for decades. We had been colleagues and friends for over 38 years. He gave this commencement address June 17, 2012 at the Stanford University School of Education. Bridges died in 2019.

It is an honor and a privilege to be your commencement speaker. After accepting the invitation to be your speaker, I consulted my oldest and one of my dearest friends. Since he had served as the president of four Canadian universities and the Chairman of the Board for the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, I knew that he had listened to many commencement speeches and delivered a few as well. Over a Guinness, I said, “George, what advice could you give me?” He paused, leaned over, and spoke softly and slowly. Here is what he said, “A commencement speaker is like a body at an Irish wake; the organizers need you for the party and don’t expect you to say much.”

I intend to follow my friend’s advice and talk briefly about how my life was changed following a taxi cab ride I took more than 40 years ago. However, before recounting this story, let me preface my remarks with a few things that don’t appear in my bio or curriculum vitae. They provide a context for the important lesson I learned during my taxi cab ride.

Elliott Eisner speaks of career planning as an oxymoron. John Krumboltz refers to professional careers as a happenstance. Both of my colleagues are right as far as I am concerned. To their cogent observations, I would add the words spoken nearly 41 years ago by one of my three sons, then six. At the dinner table one evening, my son said, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a baseball player. What do you want to be when you grow down?” How prophetic that question was. Since retiring, my height has shrunk two inches, and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next.

My professional career certainly had a life of its own. As a 16 year old, I walked across the stage at Hannibal High School in Hannibal, MO to receive my high school diploma. Having received first place in the state for a news story I had written for the school newspaper which I edited, I planned to enter the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and become a reporter. To offset my expenses, I worked one summer in a shoe factory and another summer as a Gandy Dancer, an occupation immortalized in a song titled, “The Gandy Dancers Ball.” Believe me, it was no ball. During the day we laid railroad tracks in the hot Missouri sun, drove spikes, shoveled gravel, and set railroad ties. At night we slept in box cars on a railroad siding. The closest I came to journalism school was to marry one of its graduates, Marjorie Anne Pollock, who became the reporter in the family. Next month we celebrate our 58th wedding anniversary and a wonderful life together.

Now let me turn briefly to that fateful taxi cab ride and the lesson I learned that had a profound effect on my life. The lesson I learned concerns choices.

Every choice involves a sacrifice, for oneself and for others. That statement is hardly profound; however, its consequences are. Oftentimes, we are so blinded by our wants and desires that we ignore the sacrifices inherent in the choices we make. My work in the shoe factory and later as a Gandy Dancer led me to appreciate that everyone, regardless of their station in life, has wisdom to share if you bother to listen. Many years ago I flagged a cab in Chicago and began a conversation with the cabby. Here is what he said that influenced my life:

“I wanted a nice home for my family in the city, a summer home on Lake Michigan, and a car for my wife and each of my two children. To afford these, I needed to work two full time jobs. We had the nice home, the summer home on Lake Michigan and cars for everyone in the family. My wife divorced me, and my children would have nothing to do with me. By working two jobs, I got what I wanted, but I lost what I had. What I had was more important to me than what I wanted.”

This cabby, fine man that he was, was so blinded by his desires that he failed to consider the sacrifices for his family and himself. Sadly, this is an all too common mistake.

Equally sad, if I had been riding with the same cabby today, I probably would not have learned this valuable lesson. Instead of listening to him, I would have been talking on my cell phone, surfing the internet with my smart phone, texting, or tweeting.

In light of this cabby’s story, let me ask each of you in the audience and on stage two questions, each one a variant of the same question.

  1. What are the three or four most important things in your life?
  2. What sacrifices are you unwilling to make no matter what the choice or opportunity is?

These are tougher questions to answer than you might think and even more difficult to act upon.

Not too long after the cabby told me his story, I created a mental list of the things in life that meant the most to me. This list exerted a major influence over my choices for the rest of my professional career:

1. my family

2. my students including teaching and advising

3. my research and writing on practical problems, no matter how controversial they were or whether they were valued by members of the academy

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have added a fourth—my own personal health.

For some reason faculty meetings did not make my list.

Thanks to that cabby, I can enter the check-out line when my time comes with few regrets. I am not estranged from my four children. My wife and I like, as well as love, each other. I have students who continue to care about me as I continue to care about them. I have several really close friends, the kinds who feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other. Strangely, the more I paid attention to the sacrifices and set aside my desire for professional recognition, the more recognition I received.

At every Irish wake, it is customary to offer a toast to the body. Instead, let me offer a toast to this year’s graduates. May you experience success, enjoy your journey, and end your life with few regrets because you did not let your desires blind you to the sacrifices inherent in your choices.

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