Finally, a Research Requirement?

Earlier this year, President Donald J. Trump signed into a law a new requirement that education policymakers at the federal level needed to use research, data, and evidence when making decisions about all things education.

As someone who has spent decades fighting for evidence-based approaches to instruction, it was somewhat nice to see. But it also raised a huge question for me. What exactly have we been using all these years that we are just now, in 2019, getting around to requiring that evidence and data should be made regarding education decisions?

We explore the topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen. I promise we can prove some value.

My Advice for Latinx Students at UVA

As a college student, I was both honored and completely overwhelmed to attend the University of Virginia. I arrived at Mr. Jefferson’s University as a proud graduate of Jefferson County (Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia. Less than a third of my graduating high school class went on to any form of postsecondary education. Only a handful of us left the state for college.

When I arrived at UVA, I was utterly lost. I quickly learned that there were more students in my first-year class from Sri Lanka than there was from my home state of West Virginia. I would hear countless students talk about how they were from “Nova,” and had no idea where that city was and how it sent so many kids to UVA (I later learned it was the shorthand for Northern Virginia, the wealthy, DC suburbs). And I was too introverted and too unsure to ask the sorts of questions or find the sort of guidance that would make my transition to college what it really should have been.

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my alma mater and speak with a collection of a wide range of student groups, including the Bolivar Network, designed to support Latinx students there. The visit forced me to reflect on some of those more painful times, while allowing me to celebrate those experiences in a way I hadn’t previously.

It’s always special to go back to one’s alma mater, and doubly so when you are asked to impart some wisdom. For me, though, it was even more exciting as I brought my 12-year-old son with me. He had never been to UVA before. And he had never before seen a gathering of smart young people on the path to success who, as fellow Latinos, looked just like him. That’s why it was so, so important to me that he join me, beginning to see what his future might be like.

As I looked across the room that evening, I saw a collection of faces sharing many of the same emotions I had more than a quarter century ago. I also saw a group of amazing young people who needed to hear truth, learner to learner.

I never turn down the opportunity to talk to students about their futures and about the opportunities ahead. Whether it be in formal events or in one-on-one conversations resulting from a LinkedIn message or a career office connection, I will always take the time to do what I can to help. I also know that most of the advice they get is boring. A lot of it just doesn’t relate. Too often, students just receive the trite responses adults think they should receive – study hard, plan your future, be careful what you put on social media, earn top dollar.

I learned long ago that that just isn’t me, and that was reflected at the University of Virginia last week. Over the course of two hours, I offered some advice today’s students often don’t hear. But there were three items in particular that seemed to resonate.

First, don’t obsess over grades. Grades mattered when it was time to apply for college. Now is the time to make the most out of college. For me, that meant investing all of my time and attention working for The Cavalier Daily, one of the nation’s top collegiate newspapers. By the end of college, I was the managing editor of a daily newspaper, overseeing 150 volunteer staff and a $500,000 annual operating budget. We published 16 pages of news five days a week. That experience – and the internships and writing that came with it – led to my early jobs. One has to make the most out the college experience, and that includes diving deep into experiences outside of the classroom. In the nearly 24 years since I graduated from college, I have never once been asked my GPA as I pursued a new job.

Second, life isn’t fair. The perfect job likely won’t be offered. The salary you think you deserve may not be available. A great professional opportunity may end up being a living hell, as you work for a bully of a boss. It’s not fair, but it is life. Remember, you can do anything for a year as you plan the next step. In the early stages of your career, you need to practice the mantra of “positive and flexible.” Find the positives in a not-so-great experience. Figure out what you can learn from even your worst mistakes. I can look back at a truly horrible work experience I once had and can say I would do it again because of what it taught me. I may approach it a little differently now, knowing what I know, but even if the experience wasn’t fair, it was important in shaping who I am, professionally, today.

Finally, you be you. True success in life comes from knowing who you are and where your interests and passions lie. One of the worst things you can do is head down a professional path because you think it is what is expected of you. As I was leaving college, I fully expected I’d go to law school because that was what most arts and sciences grads at UVA seemed to do. Fortunately, the summer between college and law school taught me that I could do what I loved without earning a law degree. My career highlights have been the result of following my true passions. My career lowlights have been the result of just chasing a paycheck or a job title. My work has to be about me and what drives me, not just about what I majored in.

As we were walking away from the student union, I asked my son what he thought of the evening. A quiet boy who usually doesn’t share much, he opened up by telling me, “that was awesome.” He then explained that no one had ever told him some of those things and that he had never thought about a lot of what he heard. We began talking about his own postsecondary education, and how he will be empowered with more choices and options than he could ever imagine. That is mom and I would be there to help guide him, but the decisions would ultimately be his. I could see he was both enthralled and overwhelmed, probably just the mix he should have as a seventh grader.

We talked mostly about him needing to be him, and how he needs to continue to learn where his interests and passions lie, and we will help him find pathways to pursue them. If I got the wheels in his head turning – as well as the wheels in many of the Latinx students I met with – then I am doing my job and acting on my own professional passions.

Wahoowa!

 

Some New Thinking on Higher Education?

It has now been a decade since the U.S. Congress last reauthorized the Higher Education Act. Back then, we still believed the “average” postsecondary student was an 18-year old fresh out of high school. No one knew what MOOCs were. Free college was barely a glimmer in some policy wonk’s eye. No one foresaw that liberal arts colleges, particularly those in the Northeast, would face potential closure because of financial concerns.

Back then, we didn’t know all that we didn’t know. But in the past decade, it is safe to say that higher education in 2019 is vastly different than higher ed in 2009.

So with all of those changes, isn’t it time we start looking at reauthorizing the Higher Education Act and start rethinking what higher education really is today?

We ask the question and explore the topic on the latest episode of TrumpEd on the BAM! Radio Network. Give us a listen.

 

American History Knowledge Can Trump Election Influence Fears

Recent headlines are clear. We received the 2016 election results we did because the Russians allegedly were able to dupe a significant number of American voters, particularly Bernie Sanders supporters and African-American voters, vote against Hillary. Whether forcing Green Party votes or keeping individuals away from polling places entirely, Russian intelligence spiked our 2016 vote.

Or it was the National Enquirer. By keeping salacious gossip – whether true or no – about the Republican candidate from the front pages of the tabloid, the publishers of the Enquirer handed the election to Trump. The supermarket rag single-handedly provided Donald Trump with his “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.

Or maybe it was Facebook’s fault, for not properly regulating what its users put forward as “news sources.” Or Twitter for giving Trump a constant platform. Or social media in general for not providing a proper nanny state for telling the average voter what information they should have access to, what they shouldn’t, and what to believe.

Two years have passed since the 2016 elections, and we still want to believe that we got the outcome we got because someone, or someones, did something nefarious to us. The American people are just victims here, with election outcomes the majority of Americans dislike forced upon it by outside forces.

Instead of buying into these conspiracy theories, though, maybe we should be having a serious discussion about a very real problem. We should be voicing our frustrations not at the Russians or the tabloids, but instead at the general absence of an informed populace.

According to this year’s Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, less than a third of Americans can correctly name the three branches of the Federal government. A majority don’t seem to understand how the Federal government actually operates.

A recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only a third of Americans could pass the basic immigration exam. The majority of Americans didn’t know which states were part of the original 13 states, who the United States fought in World War II, or when the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land.

Where is our collective outrage about how little we actually know about American civics and history? Where is our growing frustration with a populace uneducated about what government can and has done to address the most pressing issues of our age?

It is heartening to see a majority of states advocating for improved civics education, looking to equip students with a better understanding of how government works, offering them the facts necessary to improve our performance on the annual Constitution Day survey. It is a start.

But it is a far cry from what should be our goal. It’s terrific for the average American to learn – and retain – enough facts and figures to answer survey questions correctly or to outperform peers at a trivia night at the local tavern. Yes, we need to know names and dates. We also need to understand what has happened in our nation’s history, why it happened, and why it is significant. We need to make history relevant for all Americans. Relevant to learn. Relevant to retain. Relevant to apply.

It’s easy to blame social media campaigns or the tabloids for election outcomes. It is far more valuable to understand yellow journalism and how media was used to advance McCarthyism.

It’s easy to accuse politicians of voter suppression. It is far more valuable to understand the Jim Crow era and the fight for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It’s easy to attack the Electoral College for being antiquated. It is far more valuable to understand why we have it and how it has been used and abused in past elections.

When tens of millions of Americans begin to think like historians – knowing our history, understanding why things happened, and appreciating how those lessons of the past can be applied to the realities of today or the promise of tomorrow – we are a better country. Instead of just casting votes, we cast educated votes. We make decisions at the ballot box with a better understanding of how that single action can – and has – impacted our nation for decades to come.

Equally important, a better educated populace greatly reduces the strength of those outside forces we are growing to fear. With a firmer understanding of history, we don’t need social media clickbait to help us make election decisions. We instead cast our votes based on knowledge, facts, and a keener understanding of our history.

A better knowledge of American history can be a powerful thing. And it may just be the most valuable tool for improving elections … and election outcomes.

For Safer Schools, Let’s Look to Students’ Views, Not Parents’ Fears

Last week, I received notification from my kids’ school district that new security provisions were being put in place. Armed Class III police officers were being assigned to every school in the district, including lower elementary schools, with new patrol cars purchased for each officer. “Eyes on the door” visitor management processes were being enhanced, as the driver’s license of every visitor is to be scanned, run through sex offender databases and against child custody orders. Security “vestibules” are now being built at each of our 10 schools. School common areas, hallways, and identified exterior locations are being equipped with security cameras. Classroom phones are to be installed. Door swipes and strobe lights are receiving upgrades.

All of this is being done in a highly resourced school district. All being done in schools that have had no security issues (that the community has been made aware of). Much of this being done because a $115M schools referendum passed in the name of increased student enrollments and classroom needs now provides the financial means to strengthen security. And all done because school shootings in other parts of the country have local district leaders seeking to do something, anything, to demonstrate they are serious about school safety. It doesn’t matter if there is no direct threat, we will respond with our checkbook, buying peace of mind for those who ask, “but what about the children?”

Setting aside the failures of a school-located armed officer at a high school in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, we like to believe that embedded police are the answer to our school security concerns. But Samuel Sinyangwe, noted data scientist and co-founder of Campaign Zero, recently noted that more than 10,000 school police officers were hired (often with federal dollars) following the Columbine school shooting in 1999. According to Sinyangwe, “Two decades later, they haven’t stopped a single school shooting. Instead, they’ve arrested over 1 million kids, mostly students of color, for routine behavior violations.”

Responding to school shootings with armed officers and enhanced security measures shouldn’t surprise us, whether it is a response in a community directly in the line of fire of such violence or a community far removed from ever experiencing an active shooter. The fear of a worst-case scenario means we need to act, act now, and act in whatever possible way is available to us. We will ensure that Class III officers are well trained and have the temperaments to work in a public school. We will make assurances to the community that this about safety, and not about identifying and suspending students for behavior violations. And we will quietly note that we are successful as long as such officers and such security provisions never have to actually be relied on in an actual event.

Sure, parents like me can bemoan the fact that decisions were made to place armed officers in the schools or spend millions on security improvements without any real community input. Truth be told, it was one of the driving reasons I decided to jump into an ultimately unsuccessful race for school board this year. I quickly learned that most in the community didn’t want to discuss the data or didn’t want to answer the question about proof points demonstrating the efficacy (or lack there of) of guns in the schools. No, we want to trust our leaders will ensure our babies are safe. Do whatever it takes to ensure we aren’t the next school gun headline on the evening news.

The true missing piece in the discussion and the decision, though, is the perceptions of the very students we are trying to protect. In October, students from across the nation gathered to develop a “Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety.” In that Bill of Rights, young people articulated 15 key provisions they want and need to see from their local schools. They asked that qualified counselors be provided in the schools. They called for cultural competency and de-escalation trainings. They sought federal legislation allowing for firearm restraining orders. They sought to reduce the stigma of mental heath/illness issues. They demanded greater regulation of the gun industry and greater focus on responsible gun ownership. And they called for additional CDC research specifically focused on reducing gun violence.

Nowhere in the Students’ Bill of Rights for School Safety is there a call to place armed officers in school buildings. Nowhere in the Bill of Rights do they seek security vestibules or brighter strobe lights. Nowhere are they seeking reactive actions that assume the worst. Instead, students see the enormous value of proactively addressing the root issues while advocating for a safer, healthier school community.

I was the parent of a Connecticut kindergartner when Sandy Hook happened, and watched as my son engaged in active shooter drills without him knowing why. I sought a seat on my local school board after the district quickly budgeted $1 million annually for Class III officers, and my sixth grade daughter insisted I “had to win to keep guns out of her school.” Now I’m watching as millions of dollars a year are being spent on officers, equipment, facilities, and infrastructure enhancements in our school district of 10,000 kids, money that could have far greater impact if were being spent on guidance counselors, school nurses, community partnerships, and actual instruction.

For the past year, I have pressed far too many people to present the research on the efficacy of armed police officers in the schools. In response, I’ve received decade-old marketing PowerPoints and educated guesses. I’ve had the question deflected, as I was told Class III officers improve student-police relations (which I do agree with) and can be an effective instrument in addressing drug and vaping issues in the schools (which was never the intended goal). But no one can adequately answer the root question.

In my local community, the course has been set and there is no likely diversion from the intended destination. Millions will be spent on armed officers and enhanced security, with proponent and opponent alike hoping beyond hope they will never be needed. It’s a cryin’ shame that my town isn’t using those available resources to address the concerns and reasonable recommendations found in the Student Bill of Rights. But it is my hope that other communities like ours will see the light, and will direct their attentions to what the students need, and not what makes the adults in the room feel a little bit better.