Thursday, March 31, 2011

AV#75 - Education reform versus unions?

               ANOTHER VIEW #75

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                              Feb. 21, 2011

Education reform versus unions?

All he wanted to do was dance.  Footloose

Post-Tucson, no harsh attack on unions as an impediment to reform.  Just a meditation on why teachers turn to unions.  My text: a chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Good news:
States Aim To Curb Collective Bargaining
First it was changes to pay, then evaluation systems, and then tenure laws. Now, lawmakers in several states are challenging teacher collective bargaining. In Idaho and Indiana, Republican leaders are proposing bills that would limit collective bargaining to wages and benefits, excluding education policy issues. And a Tennessee bill would abolish teachers' ability to bargain collectively. (Education Week,, 02/07/11) from the Education Commission of the State—e-Clips, Feb. 7, 2011.

Old news:
“In a school district without a contract, one of our concerns would be that the employees don’t have a voice,” said Jeanne Beyer, spokeswoman for the Colorado Education Association, which is watching the initiative unfold…. “We believe the principal should be the education leader, the curriculum leader, the leader of improving quality instruction, and that final hiring decisions should basically stay at the central-office level.”           “Does a district need a superintendent?” Education News Colorado, Nancy Mitchell and Robert Gelchion, Feb. 7, 2011.


   Some will call this a stretch, but one way to shed light on the reason we have teachers unions is to hear from a great Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky; specifically, to look at perhaps the most widely discussed chapter (and most widely excerpted—it was in two anthologies I was assigned freshmen year in college) from The Brothers Karamazov.  I taught this chapter myself when I first offered a Russian literature class to high school juniors and seniors in Vermont.  Great works of art, we believe, are timeless.  Maybe it is not so strange to think these 20 pages might tell us about one of our most troubling issues in K-12 public education in America.
   Like many teachers, I had experiences with the union that disappointed or frustrated me. Observing school reform from inside and outside the classroom, I have criticized the stance taken by teachers’ associations on several issues.  At the same time, I share a conviction that teachers’ views are given short shrift by policymakers and the district office, that class size IS a central factor in teacher effectiveness and student achievement, and that the latest obsession with teacher evaluation could, if badly implemented, do more harm than good. 
   But post-Tucson, after reminders to be civil and avoid “going negative” and President Obama’s request that we “expand our moral imagination,” I thought it might help to offer a quiet meditation—not a harsh attack—on unions.  It may shed light on why most public schools teachers join the local teachers’ associations.  If this comes close to a truth about the attraction, perhaps it also serves as a warning.
   And yet it is an explosive topic.  A too-literal reading of this will assume I am anti-Catholic—or that the teachers union is in league (like the powerful cleric in this chapter) with the devil.  Dear reader, it’s about an idea, a view of human nature.  If you don’t see the parallels, I can’t force them on you.  Or maybe, as Ivan Karamazov says to his brother as he concludes his tale, “It’s only a senseless poem of a senseless student…”
The Grand Inquisitor

   Ivan’s parable, called “The Grand Inquisitor” (Book V, Chapter V in the novel), is set in Seville, Spain, in the sixteenth century—“in the most terrible time of the Inquisition.”  The 90-year-old cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor, sees that Christ has returned and begins to win a new following, and so has Him taken Prisoner.  The old man visits Jesus in his prison cell and tells Him how he and the Church have “corrected” His fundamental error—made 1500 years earlier.
   In essence, the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that He wanted human beings to be free—to choose to follow Him or not.  But this places too great a burden on them.  Men prefer security to freedom; they want bread, not responsibility.  So in Ivan’s astonishing version of history, the Catholic Church has invited people to submit—to the Church, not to Christ—to secure some degree of happiness.  It has “saved” them, it protects them, from the suffering inevitable for those who live as free men and women.  Because His way would reverse everything the church is now all about, the Grand Inquisitor threatens to burn Christ the next day “as the worst of heretics”—a second crucifixion.
   “For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good … let me tell Thee now, today, the people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet… I tell Thee that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find some one quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born…”
 “Thou didst think too highly of men…. So we have corrected Thy work…. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.”

   According to Lionel Trilling, “no other work of literature has made so strong an impression on the modern consciousness or has seemed so relevant to virtually any speculation about the destiny of man.”  Trilling, one of America’s greatest literary critics, says “The Grand Inquisitor” is prophetic of the 20th century totalitarian state exercising “control over the actions of its citizens,” attempting “to win their acquiescence and attachment by providing (or promising) material and social benefits that will relieve them of care and anxiety.  It represents itself in a paternal guide, as taking responsibility for the well-being of its people, on condition that they delegate—actually surrender—to the government their will and initiative.”

School life

   This teacher wondered why intelligent, thoughtful colleagues could turn to the union—could immediately think, “file a grievance!”—when so many options (like a rational conversation, or an open debate, with the administration) seemed possible.  I wondered why colleagues submitted to group-think and turned on a colleague I admired—who crossed the picket line that fall we went on strike.  Or why colleagues were so intent on keeping the new administration in check—running battles, it seemed, to test who was in charge (them or us); to make mountains out of molehills in order to keep the union’s power in tact—or as leverage for the next contract negotiation.  The union I saw gave voice to a few, yes—our union representatives—but it was striking how many teachers merely echoed their leaders’ complaints.
   The unions claim to give a voice to the beleaguered and put-upon teacher.  “United we stand,” I guess; no individual educator can influence an election or a piece of legislation, union money and lobbyists can.  But as the teachers union seldom expressed my views, I saw I would actually be surrendering my voice.  When teaching that Russian literature class in the fall of 1980—including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn—I picked up the Vermont Education Association’s material and was told VEA members should vote to re-elect Jimmy Carter.  Solzhenitsyn was in exile two hours away, in Vermont, for speaking up to a totalitarian state.  The Soviet army was in Afghanistan; President Carter seemed surprised that the Kremlin could be so wicked.  In contrast, Ronald Reagan understood the invasion as part of a pattern over the past 60 years—of an evil empire.
   It is not that my vote for Reagan that November felt right.  But it mattered to me then, as it matters to many of us in the teaching profession, that we find our own voice.
Need for protection, or “the gift of freedom”?

   My conflicts with principals surely made me wonder if I had colleagues who would stand up with me.  I wanted their respect.  What I did not want was their protection, or a structure that turned a difference of opinion into a labor-management issue.  Yes, a reprimand from the administration made me unhappy.  One winter I felt compelled to sign a piece of paper promising the administration I would never bring up the subject of the daily schedule—for two years I had questioned the block schedule—as long as I was on the staff.  Humiliating.  Another principal hurt my pride by coming into my classroom, as I taught, to inspect “the lesson plans that need to be on your desk.”  It was my 15th year as a teacher, but it felt as if I were in year one, as if I needed to fear her judgment to try hard to be prepared each morning.
   Many uneasy moments.  But there was always a choice.  Speak up; perhaps go too far and get fired; compromise; or resign.  It was up to me.  And I could live with that.  Not easily.  But you sign an at-will contract—as I did most of my 18 years of teaching—and accept it. 
   Ivan’s parable is cynical to some, but it gives us one way to understand why so many teachers join and stay.  Is it a factor why most teachers prefer the safety of the union’s hold?  Does it explain union opposition, time after time, to reforms leading to more freedom—schools granted waivers to control their personnel decisions; more flexibility on employee work rules—expectations that go past 3:30, even on to Saturday, and beyond the 175-day contract; teachers allowed to skip much of the required coursework through the alternative license program?  Too much freedom! 
   The union’s grumbling resistance brings to mind the old folks in Footloose. Rock music? Dancing?  “No, no, no, that’s not a good idea.”  Frightened of this new freedom. Fearing a loss of control.

“All he wanted to do was dance.”

   I won’t say I am proud of leaving six teaching jobs.  Stability and continuity have their place.  And I would never argue a school community is well served by a principal who is allowed to mistreat his or her faculty.  It feels awful to be silenced by a principal.  But you can resign. 
   We all want to work in a healthy work environment.  I found the best—and the worst—climates in private and charter schools with no union “to protect my job.”  My conclusion?  That’s life.  “The gift of freedom” includes risks.  This is news?  When I started at a new school and struggled in my first month with the principal’s micromanagement, a friend said: caveat emptor (as if it were my fault I hadn’t seen these tendencies before I took the job).  But when you “buy” into a school there is much hidden from view; less benign patterns only come to light once you join the team and show up every day.  Again, c’est la guerre.
   We’re big boys and girls, I want to say to the union; we can fight our own battles, thank you.  Your “security” does not make me more free.  Just the opposite.  Like most everyone, I always wanted a school community where I felt I belonged.  A few times I found it.  No need, from my experience, to seek that belonging—that safe haven—in a union whose beliefs I do not share.

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225.  EMAIL 

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
8802 N. Piney Creek Rd.
Parker, CO  80138

AV#76 - Colorado scores an F on our history standards - and what we can do about it

                ANOTHER VIEW #76

      Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                  March 5, 2011

Colorado scores an F on our history standards    and what we can do about it (without spending a dime)

“World War II was the mightiest struggle humankind has ever seen. It killed more people, cost more money, damaged more property, affected more people, and caused more far-reaching changes in nearly every country than any other war in history. The number of people killed, wounded, or missing between September 1939 and September 1945 can never be calculated, but it is estimated that more than 55 million people perished.”    

Do you find it odd that World War II is not mentioned in the Colorado history standards?  Not once in 100 pages.  At one point, they get close … but then skip over those six horrific years:
“Prepared graduates” will “investigate causes and effects of significant events in United States history.  Topics to include but not limited to WWI, Great Depression, Cold War…”
Something missing?  Go to our standards and do a search for World War II.  Search for Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler.  Try Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, A-Bomb. Nothing. Zip.

To get an F in college—an Art History course--was embarrassing.  Maybe I shouldn’t have slept through the final exam.  No one likes to get an F, but we should take it to heart and see how we can improve.  That’s certainly what we will be saying to schools if Colorado starts giving them letter grades—as many states are doing.  That is certainly what we would ask of a teacher—or a student—given such a low evaluation.  Unless we want to shoot the messenger, failing grades should force a little soul-searching.

This past month the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released its first report on the quality of state history standards since 2003.  Eight years ago our standards were given a D.  Colorado’s grade today?  F.  Our scores on Content and Rigor – 0/7.  On Clarity and Specificity: 0/3. 
(The State of State U.S. History Standards 2011, by Sheldon M. Stern, Jeremy A. Stern)

Table-1 • 2011 Grades for U.S. History Standards  -  Ranked from Best to Worst

2011 GRADE
South Carolina
New York
12 states
10 states
18 states, including COLORADO

So I ask: What are we doing about it?  Can’t we do better?
As Table 1 shows, we were hardly alone with our low score.  Fordham’s “Key findings include:
A majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful. The average grade across all states is barely a D. In twenty-eight jurisdictions—a majority of states—the history standards earn Ds or below. Eighteen earn Fs.  Just one state—South Carolina—has standards strong enough to earn a straight A. … just ten states—or about one in five—get honors marks.  (These states provide) …several national models … that lagging states could and should emulate going forward.
We learned of the report in The Washington Post, Education Week, and The Economist, but not a word in The Denver Post or Education News Colorado.  It deserves our attention.  I have supported the standards effort since it began in the early 1990’s.  The F does embarrass me, as I suspect it does many Coloradans who believe the standards we commit to reveals our expectations for public schools.  Furthermore, I taught some history when, in my English classes, students read speeches by Churchill and Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X (again, not one of whom is named in Colorado’s history standards). 

What’s wrong with our standards?

First, The Economist’s summary.  It points out that while President Obama and many others remind us how critical it is that we improve the teaching of math, science, and technology, a 2009 test found an even smaller percentage of high school seniors—47%--scored at the basic level in history than in math.  “One problem, (this) new report argues, is that states have pathetic standards for what history should be taught. Good standards do not ensure that students will learn history. But they are a crucial guide…many states emphasize abstract concepts rather than history itself.”

That captures the essence of Fordham’s two-page criticism of our standards (found at

A few bullets from the report (quoted with permission from Fordham):

Overview  -  The 2009 Colorado social studies standards, we are told, were “designed for clarity, rigor, and coherence,” aiming for “fewer, higher and clearer standards.” The result is meant to be “a vision” of “what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level through eighth, and then through high school.” Unfortunately, thematic abstractions dominate the standards—to the near-total exclusion of historical or chronological coherence, obscuring what limited content there is in a confused tangle of categories, subcategories, and jargon.

Goals and Organization  -  Each such expectation consists of a thematic heading—labeled “concepts and skills students master”—laying out broad conceptual themes to be covered. For example, one eighth-grade history grade-level expectation directs students to “formulate appropriate hypotheses about United States history based on a variety of historical sources and perspectives.

The state then provides a series of “evidence outcomes” for each concepts and skills heading. These are thematic summary statements of knowledge that students must master as well as “21st century skills and readiness competencies.” …This jargon-laden snarl of nested categories severely fragments any historical content, making chronological presentation impossible. With content summaries so broad, general, and disorganized, even the basic scope of each year’s course can be difficult to discern.
Evaluation  -  According to the state’s social studies standards, Colorado students are expected to graduate with the skills to understand “how people view, construct and interpret history” and grasp “key historical periods and patterns of change over time within and across nations and cultures.”  Unfortunately, concepts and skills must be matched with content and substance if genuine historical clarity and rigor are to be achieved. Yet Colorado seems much more interested in abstract goals than specific substance….

Content and Rigor Conclusion  -  Colorado’s K–12 Academic Standards in social studies provide virtually no subject-specific content in U.S. history. There is hardly anything in U.S. history that teachers are specifically required to know or to teach at any particular grade level. A complete lack of specific content means that substantive rigor cannot be identified, measured, or evaluated. Even a few vague and brief references to specific eras or concepts cannot raise the score above a zero out of seven for Content and Rigor.

From Education Week – UNC professor responds

As Education Week’s article suggested, some will fault the messenger and dismiss the message:

But officials in some of those low-scoring states and other critics of the Fordham study said the poor ratings owe largely to differences between the institute and various states on how American history is best taught, what it should cover, and how detailed the curricula should be in elementary, middle, and high school.

“The authors seem to want a prescribed and detailed U.S. history curriculum for every state, and this is constitutionally impossible in Colorado,” said Fritz Fischer, a professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and the chairman of the National Council for History Education. Under the state’s constitution, Colorado officials are prohibited from dictating curricula to school districts, he said. “The biggest problem reflected in the study is that it ignores historical thinking and understanding in favor of weakly defined ‘specific substance,’ ” said Mr. Fischer, who has also advised Colorado on developing social studies standards. “The authors appear to be attracted to lists of names, dates, and events at the expense of standards that require students to develop an in-depth understanding of historical concepts and ideas.”

However, Fordham’s president said its analysis is about making sure students have a firm grasp of historical facts before developing historical concepts and ideas.  “You have to get the bricks before you can get the mortar,” Chester E. Finn, Jr. said. 
(“Report Gives a Majority of States Poor Grades on History Standards,
by Michelle D. Anderson, Education Week, Feb. 16, 2011, online)

Jo O’Brien, Assistant Commissioner for Standards and Assessment at the Colorado Department of Education, emailed me: “It is not surprising that the Fordham reviewers rated Colorado’s history standards as they did given their review criteria is fundamentally different than the framework used to develop all of Colorado’s Academic Standards.  States rated high by Fordham tend to have history standards and addendum documents that are more curricular in nature.  In Colorado, curriculum design occurs at the district level, not at the state level.”  She added: “The need for specific and rigorous curriculum is essential. Colorado is not in a legal position to offer curriculum.  That will always put us crossways with such a review.”

A recommendation for elementary and middle schools

Perhaps the state cannot do more.  I would note, though, that we recently adopted the Common Core standards in English, and here we at least see a list of texts—specific novels, stories, poems, and  speeches--that would help schools and teachers know what literature would meet expectations at certain grade levels*.  I am sure many teachers across the state pay less attention to the amorphous state standards and feel their more specific district standards are a better guide. (This English teacher felt that way about the Douglas County language arts standards, as compared to the state standards). 

Still, I believe many schools and teachers would be glad to have a list of essential names, places, events, and critical ideas to address (which is hardly “dictating curricula,” true?)  It is challenging enough to prepare the best units and lesson plans; I certainly wanted some choices as a teacher, but I was sure there were folks brighter than me who could come up with the big picture, the essentials of what to teach.

For K-8 history and geography, I think it has been done.  The Core Knowledge Sequence— now guiding the teaching of history in close to 100 Colorado public and private schools—offers the specificity that gives teachers everything our state standards do not.  I speak as one who spent most of the past decade teaching English in three schools committed to, or moving towards, Core Knowledge as its guide.  Language arts teachers benefit greatly knowing what our students are being taught by our colleagues who teach history.  The curriculum outline is written in a way that we often piggyback on each other’s work.

Let’s take, say, World War II.  Pages 5 and 6 here give you Core’s guide for that unit in history.  Those who see it as “merely a list to memorize” that demands insufficient “critical thinking skills” show little appreciation for the powerful units created by my history colleagues Mark, Diana, and Miles, or for the heartfelt discussions as our students wrestled with these events.

Language Arts Class: World War II–speeches by Churchill (1940) and Roosevelt (1941), and The Diary of a Young Girl (1942-1944), by Anne Frank

Colorado standards and the Core curriculum expect students to read essays and speeches as well as fiction.  I was glad to use time in English class when students could read Winston Churchill’s “Blood Sweat and Tears” and “Their Finest Hour”; I did so as my Social Studies colleague hit 1940.   As history class entered 1941 and America’s involvement, my class read Franklin Roosevelt’s “The Four Freedoms” and “Declaration of War Against Japan.”  Our close look at these texts gave the students new insight into how these two men spoke for—and led— their nations.  (NOTE: Two of those speeches are referenced in the Common Core English standards.*)

Then we began The Diary of a Young Girl.  (Note—this is recommended for seventh graders in the Common Core Curriculum Map, designed to align with the Common Core standards—see  But if history class isn’t simultaneously teaching WWII, how will students have the needed context to appreciate Anne Frank’s situation?)  Her story moves from the summer of 1942 to the bombings of Amsterdam to D-Day and into August 1944—with the Frank family, like millions, waiting for the Allies to arrive.  Their fears—and their desperate hope for liberation from Nazi rule—came to life in the words of thoughtful teenager growing up, struggling with relationships, with the war and prejudice, and hoping to discover who she is.

From the Core Knowledge Sequence- curriculum guide for 7th Grade History/Geography*

NOTE: This is one page from the four-plus pages in the CK 7th grade curriculum guide – see page 180-185 of the Core Knowledge Sequence – Content and Skills Guidelines for K-8:

V. World War II

• Italy
Mussolini establishes fascism
Attack on Ethiopia
• Germany
Weimar Republic, economic repercussions of WWI
Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazi totalitarianism: cult of the F├╝hrer (“leader”),  Mein Kampf
Nazism and the ideology of fascism, in contrast to communism and democracy
Racial doctrines of the Nazis: anti-Semitism, the concept of Lebensraum (literally, “living space”) for the “master race,” Kristallnacht
The Third Reich before the War: Gestapo, mass propaganda, book burning
• The Soviet Union
Communist totalitarianism: Josef Stalin, “Socialism in one country”
Collectivization of agriculture
Five-year plans for industrialization
The Great Purge
• Spanish Civil War  -- Franco, International Brigade, Guernica

• Hitler defies Versailles Treaty: reoccupation of Rhineland, Anschluss, annexation of Austria
• Appeasement: Munich Agreement, “peace in our time”
• Soviet-Nazi Nonaggression Pact
• Blitzkrieg: invasion of Poland, fall of France, Dunkirk
• Battle of Britain: Winston Churchill, “nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat”
• The Home Front in America
American Lend-Lease supplies, Atlantic Charter
America First movement
U.S. mobilization for war: desegregation of defense industries, “Rosie the Riveter,” war bonds
America races Germany to develop the atomic bomb: the Manhattan Project
• Hitler invades Soviet Union: battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad
• The Holocaust: “Final Solution,” concentration camps (Dachau, Auschwitz)
• North Africa Campaign: El Alamein
• D-Day: Allied invasion of Normandy, General Dwight Eisenhower
• Battle of the Bulge, bombing of Dresden
• Yalta Conference
• Surrender of Germany, Soviet Army takes Berlin

*Reprinted with permission from the Core Knowledge Foundation, from The Core Knowledge Sequence: Content and Skill Guidelines for Grades PreK - 8, © 2010 by the Core Knowledge Foundation. (Note: updated in 2010.)  Not to be copied or reproduced without permission from the Core Knowledge Foundation, 801 E. High Street, Charlottesville, VA  22902 <

• Historical background: Japan’s rise to power
Geography of Japan (review all topics from grade 5) -- Sea of Japan and Korea Strait
   High population density, very limited farmland, heavy reliance on imported raw materials, food
Japanese imperialism: occupation of Korea, invasion of Manchuria, Rape of Nanking
Japanese-Soviet neutrality treaty
• Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941: “A day that will live in infamy.”
• Internment of Japanese-Americans
• Fall of the Philippines: Bataan Death March, General Douglas MacArthur, “I shall return.”
• Surrender of Japan -- Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Enola Gay
U.S. dictates pacifist constitution for Japan, Emperor Hirohito
• Potsdam Conference, Nuremberg war crimes trials
• Creation of United Nations: Security Council, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

I use the World War II material merely as one example to contrast Colorado’s standards with Core Knowledge.  Similar specific content enables 8th grade English and history teachers to collaborate as they read: The Good Earth while studying China; Animal Farm after studying the Russian Revolution and totalitarianism; and Du Bois, Hurston, Angelou, King, and Malcolm X during their study of the Civil Rights movement. (King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” is also referenced in the Common Core standards for grades 9-10.)

An F seems right when our standards fail to mention what is perhaps the most critical event of the 20th century.  An outcome that was no sure thing.  So much blood shed.  Huge stakes.  Never again, we tell ourselves.  But hard to learn from this cataclysm—if we fail to teach it.  

What should guide us?  Those who developed our history standards speak of the Massachusetts Curriculum Framework as one resource.  There you will find clear expectations on teaching WW II—see pages 60 and 76—  This part didn’t make it west.  Closer to home, we have 100 schools that find the Core Knowledge Sequence a good place to start.  Perhaps more K-8 teachers will follow.  The bound copy is $35, but at it is free.  I hope you’ll take a look. 

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225. Email 

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
8802 N. Piney Creek Rd.
Parker, CO  80138

AV#77- Hope and Positive Thinking - or Determination

                     ANOTHER VIEW #77

                Peter Huidekoper, Jr.                                                                                              March 21, 2011

  Hope and Positive Thinking – or Determination?

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.  We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.” 
Winston Churchill. “Blood, Sweat and Tears” speech, May 13, 1940

“Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.  Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” 
Martin Luther King, Jr.  “I Have a Dream” speech, August 28, 1963 

By 2014 all students will perform at grade level in reading and math.  No Child Left Behind, 2002

“By the late first decade of the twenty-first century, positive thinking had become ubiquitous and virtually unchallenged in American culture. It was promoted on some of the most widely watched talk shows, like Larry King Live and the Oprah Winfrey Show; it was the stuff of runaway best sellers like the 2006 book The Secret; it had been adopted as the theology of America’s most successful evangelical preachers; it found a place in medicine as a potential adjuvant to the treatment of almost any disease. It had even penetrated the academy in the form of the new discipline of “positive psychology,” offering courses teaching students to pump up their optimism and nurture their positive feelings.”                               Barbara Ehrenreich, from Bright-Side: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America

“Be determined about those things you consider important.”  Pierre Jimenez


Have you heard or taken part in a conversation which challenged your optimism, your hope about improving public education?

I bet you have.  Aren’t these questions familiar?

“Don’t you feel you’re banging your head against a brick wall, trying to change the public school system in our country?”

“Can you honestly tell me reform has accomplished anything truly significant in the past twenty-five years in K-12 education?”

“Policy churn--choice, standards, accountability, teacher evaluation, and the next silver bullet—
 please!  Get real!  In the end, isn’t it all just moving the chairs around the deck of the Titanic?”

If, as I suspect, you recognize those questions (perhaps you asked one just like it this morning), and now that big budget cuts invite the inevitable: and please tell me how you expect to do more with less—let’s try a different tack.  I am not sure hope matters.  Not as much as determination.

Change in Egypt:  We’re not moving, no matter how long it takes

Well of course hope matters. We saw hope recently in the folks in the center of Cairo, throughout Egypt.  But above all we saw determination. “We are not going anywhere until Mubarak goes.” They had every reason, after a 30-year dictatorship, not to hope, to fear that speaking up could cost them life or limb.  In spite of this, they were committed to see it through.  It was this determination—as well as their courage—we found so inspiring, and that now inspires many others in that region to protest and rebel, even, tragically, at the cost of their lives.

Determination strikes me as a different quality, less flighty, less subject to moods, than hope.  It is closer to what made the words of Winston Churchill or Dr. King persuasive, rather than the we-can-win-the-future pep talk that today’s leaders want to sell us.  In Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, Barbara Ehrenreich critiqued this trend, “the American tendency toward mindless optimism.”*

At the turn of the twenty-first century, American optimism seemed to reach a manic crescendo. In his final State of Union address in 2000, Bill Clinton struck a triumphal note, proclaiming that “never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats.” But compared with his successor, Clinton seemed almost morose. George W. Bush had been a cheerleader in prep school, and cheerleading— a distinctly American innovation— could be considered the athletically inclined ancestor of so much of the coaching and “motivating” that has gone into the propagation of positive thinking. He took the presidency as an opportunity to continue in that line of work, defining his job as that of inspiring confidence, dispelling doubts, and pumping up the national spirit of self-congratulation. If he repeatedly laid claim to a single adjective, it was “optimistic.”

Then things began to go wrong, which is not in itself unusual but was a possibility excluded by America’s official belief that things are good and getting better. There was the dot-com bust that began a few months after Clinton’s declaration of unprecedented prosperity in his final State of the Union address, then the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001….

Ehrenreich charges that we overlooked “ample warnings about a possible attack by airplane” prior to 9/11, and provides evidence to support her point.  She then finds a similar pattern in our “reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news” regarding the invasion of Iraq, how “vulnerable’’ New Orleans would be to a strong hurricane, and the financial crash of 2008.  

Obama, 2012, and Bertolt Brecht

We feel grateful to leaders who raise our spirits and offer the dream of “a shining city on a hill.”  It’s easy to see why.  We honor Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday.  Barack Obama now tries to embody that same yes we can spirit—no Jimmy Carter “malaise” speech for this President.  We are told this is how politicians succeed. Be positive. Whoever wins in 2012, pundits cynically assure us, will not do it by speaking the truth about our fiscal crisis and entitlements.  Sell hope. And smile. 

It’s true, Dr. King offered his dream.  But hear again a few words from that great speech: “It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro…. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.” (No illusions of a quick fix. In that very same year, after all, Alabama Governor George Wallace promised “segregation forever.”)

And recall King’s timeline, those prophetic words in his last speech: “I may not get there with you.” 

*“Bah, humbug – The virtues of pessimism,” by Lexington, The Economist, Dec. 19, 2009.

Consider our frequent reference to education reform as “the civil rights issue” of our time.  But that struggle took centuries: “We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights,” King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” while in solitary confinement.  When do we say the civil rights movement began? 1954? 1863? 1776? 1619? Perhaps a cautionary note for our fictional forecasts in education reform: “by 2014 all students will be proficient,” if we just pass this next bill, within a decade we can__________ (fill in the blank with the promise of higher test scores or graduation rates your governor made five or ten years ago, a goal your state hasn’t come anywhere close to achieving). 

We must accept that we cannot raise our expectations, or the results, of our schools overnight.  The resistance is deep-seated.  In that “Letter” King responded to clergymen who called his actions “unwise and untimely”; he defended nonviolent protest and criticized “the appalling silence of the good people” and of “white churches (that) stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”  Sound familiar? In 1984 we were A Nation at Risk. It troubled us a bit, but look, we’re still here, surely that was hyperbole.  So a quarter century later we still tolerate politicians offering trite promises of “excellent schools for all,” even as we shrug at figures telling us that in urban districts close to 40% of our students drop out.  Even more frustrating, our leaders insist school failure is “a problem” they will “fix” (during their four years in office!), a verb that that so vastly understates the scope of the crisis.

This is one reason I have criticized too much “happy talk” (Another View #53-2008), the Denver Public Schools’ fantasy of achieving an 82% graduation rate by 2014 (AV#56-“Staying Sober,” 2009), and wishful thinking in Colorado’s Race to the Top proposal: a goal of 85% proficiency in reading and math by 2014 (AV#70-2010). What we need, if we want to rally people around a cause with the moral weight of civil rights, is a grittier truth.  Churchill spoke of the cost, the blood sweat and tears, for little England to stand up to a dictator who had conquered most of Europe.  King spoke not just of changes in the laws, but also in the heart—a more wrenching and profound transformation—where “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”  

Geoffrey Canada and Wendy Kopp– a “grittier truth”

This is the tougher truth I hear from Geoffrey Canada and Wendy Kopp, who exemplify the determination and long-term commitment to reform we desperately need.  Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Brian Williams on NBC on March 9: “This country needs to recognize this is a crisis and we need to take immediate and urgent action or we’re going to lose a whole generation of Americans.” Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America, spoke at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store on March 1 to a standing-room only crowd—many of them TFA folks who see in their classrooms every day why she presses now for “transformational change.” As Kopp puts it, “in the face of a problem of the magnitude and consequences of the one we’re addressing—one where whole communities put more children into prison than into college—there is only one morally acceptable option. Incremental change is not enough” (“Our ‘Chance to Make History,’” Commentary, Education Week, March 16, 2011). 

We have to blame ourselves, if as voters—as some tell us—we won’t accept truth-tellers.  If we will not allow harsh facts to shake up our complacency.  Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Pity the country that needs heroes.” In the same way, pity the country that needs leaders to give us hope.  That we must discover for ourselves. I appreciate why it is rare to hear leadership that paints a clear picture for the country, however worrisome, so we stop whiffing on the tough issues. But it looks like a pattern, an irrational compulsion To Pretend, To Be Hopeful—without speaking the truth. 

“We need to brace ourselves for a struggle …”

Two of the 20th century’s greatest figures found their own resources to maintain hope, but their message was never cheery.  The facts were clear: King had seen “Bull” Connor use police dogs against teenagers, state troopers crack the heads of civil rights marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge.  For years Churchill sounded the alarm (see While England Slept). Now the Nazi army gathered on the shores of the British channel. The Luftwaffe was overhead.  An invasion seemed imminent. 

O.K. you’re right, in comparison, this crisis isn’t as earth-shaking. But if the nation is not at risk, can’t we agree that millions of young lives are at risk?  Boys and girls who are not getting a sound education.  Which has immense consequences, for them, and us.  No mere “problem” to be “fixed.”   

And here the Cairo example—if we think “No matter how long it takes” actually means 17 days to bring about a revolution, perfect for our short-attention span—is misleading.  The timeline may, sadly, stretch well into the future.  Many of us who have turned gray in school reform efforts might need to say, with King, “even if I do not get there with you.”  In our case, though, hardly martyrs. Just folks determined to keep trying—in his words, “to continue to work….”

To effect dramatic improvement in public education, Ehrenreich’s advice might well apply:

I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone— better jobs, health care, and so forth—there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets….But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with. Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225. Email - 

Peter Huidekoper, Jr.
8802 N. Piney Creek Rd.
            Parker, CO  80138