Archives for category: Students

Three scholars have recently published a very informative book about the history of education in New Orleans. The authors tell this story by scrutinizing one very important elementary school in the city, the one that was first to be desegregated with one black student in 1960. The book is titled William Frantz Public School: A Story of Race, Resistance, Resiliency, and Recovery in New Orleans (Peter Lang). The authors are Connie L. Schaffer, Meg White, and Martha Graham Viator.

This is the school that enrolled 6-year-old Ruby Bridges in November 1960. Her entry to the school each day, a tiny little girl accompanied by federal agents, was met with howling, angry white parents. Her admission to an all-white school in New Orleans was a landmark in the fight to implement the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. It was immortalized by Norman Rockwell in a famous painting called The Problem We All Live With.

The authors set the stage for their history by pointing out that the Reconstruction-era constitution of Louisiana forbade racially segregated schools. In the early 1870s, about one-third of the public schools in New Orleans were racially integrated. Some schools had racially integrated teaching staffs. School board members were both white and black. When Reconstruction ended, rigid racial segregation and white supremacy were restored.

The William Frantz Public School opened in 1938 as a school for white children. It occupied almost a full city block.It was one of the few schools built during the Depression. It was built to accommodate 570 children. The authors demonstrate the vast inequality between white schools and black schools. Not far away was a school for black children of elementary age. Not only were black schools overcrowded, but black neighborhoods had problems with poorly maintained sewers, streets, sidewalks, gas and water lines, and structurally unsound buildings. Black schools were dilapidated, students shared desks, and class sizes were often in excess of 60 children to one teacher. Black students had fewer instructional hours than white students, due to overcrowding. White teachers were paid more than black teachers.

Black citizens of New Orleans were outraged by these conditions but they were politically powerless. The white power structure did not care about the education of black children.

Then came the Brown decision of 1954, which declared the policy of “separate but equal” to be unjust. The federal courts moved slowly to implement desegregation, but eventually they began to enforce it. The federal district judge who took charge of desegregation in New Orleans was J. Shelley Wright, a graduate of the city’s white schools. He determined to implement the Brown decision, despite the opposition of the Governor, the Legislature, the Mayor, and prominent white citizens of the city, as well as White Citizens Councils.

In 1958, the Louisiana legislature passed several measures to weaken desegregation efforts including laws allowing the governor to close any school that desegregated, providing state funds to any students seeking to leave the traditional public schools, and granting the state sweeping power to control all schools.

Their well-written history brings the reader to the present, to the all-charter model that privatizers hold up as an exemplar for every urban district troubled by low test scores and white flight.

The section of the book that I found most interesting was their detailed account of the white reaction to the prospect of school integration, despite the fact that the black students who applied to attend white schools were carefully screened for their academic potential and their behavior. Ruby Bridges was the one and only student chosen to start desegregation. Crowds gathered every morning to spit and scream. They harassed not only Ruby, with her federal protection, but any white student who dared to enter the school. Their blockade eventually forced whites to abandon the William Franz Public School. A few persisted, but little Ruby never met them. She was assigned to a classroom with no other students and one teacher.

The whites who tried to stay in the school were subject to threats of violence. Some lost their jobs, as did Ruby’s father. They feared for their lives. The hatred for blacks by whites was explosive. The portrayal of malignant racism is searing.

A relatively small number of whites tried to calm the situation. One such group was called Save Our Schools. They reached out to the white parents of the school, trying to bring peace and reconciliation.

In perhaps the most disturbing response to an SOS mailing, a WFPS parent who had received a letter from SOS returned the letter smeared with feces. A handwritten comment on the letter stated the parent would rather have ignorant children then to send them to a “nigger school.”

The mob won. By the middle of the school year, fewer than 10 white students remained in the school, and they too needed protection. By 1993, not one white student attended the school.

As the tumult continued after Ruby’s admission, prominent whites funded private schools so that white students could escape the specter of desegregation. The Legislature passed laws to support the resistance to desegregation and to give vouchers to whites fleeing the public schools and to underwrite the private academies where racist white students enrolled.

When the battle over desegregation began, New Orleans schools enrolled a white majority. Racism led to white flight, and before long the school district was overwhelmingly black, as was the city.

The authors detail the problems of the district. Not only was it segregated and underfunded, but its leadership was unstable. The management was frequently incompetent and corrupt. Its accounting department was a mess. So was Human Resources. Teachers were not paid on time. The management was woeful. The state wanted to take control of the district before Hurricane Katrina. Three months before the disastrous hurricane, the state leaned on the district to hire a corporate restructuring firm at a cost of $16.8 million.

In June, the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board signed an agreement relinquishing the management of the district’s multi-million dollar operating budget to the state. As a result, the district entered into negotiations with a New York turnaround management corporation, Alvarez and Marsal, to oversee its finances. In the contract, the board not only surrendered financial control, it also granted the firm authority to hire and fire employees.

Alvarez & Marsal put one of its senior partners, Bill Roberti, in charge of the district. Before joining the management consultants, Roberti had run the clothing store Brooks Brothers. A&M had previously received $5 million for a year of controlling the St. Louis school district, which was not “turned around,” and collected $15 million for reorganizing New York City’s school bus routes, with poor results (some children were stranded for long periods of time, waiting for buses on the coldest day of the year).

Before the hurricane, the state created the Recovery School District (in 2003) to take control of failing schools. In 2004, it passed Act 9, which allowed the state to take over schools with an academic score of 60 or less and hand them over to charter operators. After the hurricane, the Legislature passed Act 35, which changed the criteria for takeover and paved the way for the Recovery School District to take charge of most of the city’s public schools. Parents got “choice,” but the new charter schools created their own admissions policies, and most did the choosing.

Prior to Act 35, schools with School Performance Scores below 60 were considered to be in academic crisis. Act 35 raised the threshold score to 87.5, virtually ensuring every school in Orleans Parish would be deemed in academic crisis, and therefore, eligible for takeover by the Recovery District…Act 35 achieved what Governor Davis, Leander Perez, and segregationists failed to do in 1960. Act 35, for all intents and purposes, allowed the State of Louisiana to seize control of the Orleans Parish school district…The takeover of the failing schools within Orleans Parish made the Recovery District the largest school district in the State of Louisiana. Had the threshold for the School Performance Score not been raised in Act 35, the Recovery District would have taken over only 13 schools and had a much reduced presence and influence in public education in New Orleans.

After the hurricane, district officials and Alvarez & Marsal issued a diktat permanently terminating the jobs and benefits of more than 7,500 teachers and other staff.

Sixteen years since Hurricane Katrina and the privatization of public schools in New Orleans, the debate about the consequences continues, as it surely will for many more years.

For those interested in New Orleans, I recommend this book, along with Raynard Sanders’ The Coup d’Etat of the New Orleans Public Schools: Money, Power, and the Illegal Takeover of a Public School System, Kristen Buras’ Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance. For a favorable view of the charter takeover, read Douglas Harris’s Charter School City: What the End of Traditional Public Schools in New Orleans Means for American Education.

I thought you might want to read this. It’s a sobering story. There are about 300 million guns in the U.S.

This story appeared in The Washington Post.

This story is adapted from “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” which will be published March 30 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book examines the devastating effects of gun violence on the nation’s kids and offers a new way forward.

WEST PELZER, S.C. — The boy knew where the key to the gun safe was. He had always known.

It was a balmy evening in summer 2014, just five days after Tyler Paxton celebrated his 11th birthday with chicken nuggets and meatballs. His dad, Jonathan, kept the key atop the safe it opened, never hiding it from his only child because he trusted Tyler. An avid shooter, Jonathan had taught his son how to fire guns and how to handle them safely.

That night, as Tyler’s parents relaxed in front of the TV in the living room, the fifth-grader announced that he wanted to watch cartoons and headed to their bedroom, where he did something else instead. Tyler reached up and took the key, opened the cabinet door and pulled out a .357 magnum revolver with a snub nose. In a safe packed with rifles, it was the only loaded firearm.

Every day in America, children handle guns that they’re not supposed to touch, and every day, they hurt people with them. Kids younger than 2 have killed siblings. Older children have shot friends, parents, neighbors, classmates and, thousands of times, themselves. And yet, after two mass shootings fuel a push for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban in Congress, few of America’s political leaders are championing laws that protect children from accessing deadly weapons.

This is not a partisan issue. A 2019 poll by American Public Media found that 8 in 10 people in this country — including 7 in 10 Republicans — supported legislation mandating that guns be properly locked up when they’re not in use. Such laws are proven to save lives and have never been more essential than they are right now.

Gun sales in the United States exploded during the coronavirus pandemic, a time when kids were confined inside their homes more than ever before. An analysis of publicly reported incidents from Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group, found that the number of people killed by children in unintentional shootings between March and December of 2020 spiked 33 percent, from 97 deaths to 129, compared with the same period in 2019.

Tyler had been around guns all his life, but, to his parents, he seldom seemed interested.

His mere existence was, to the conservative, evangelical Christian couple, something of a miracle. It had taken his mother, Olivia, seven years to conceive, and the pregnancy that followed proved no less fraught. A heavyset woman, she had only one kidney and high blood pressure, and after she carried him for four months, doctors told her that they didn’t believe both mother and baby would survive. A 3-D ultrasound the next day would determine whether the fetus was viable.

Distraught, Olivia and Jonathan drove to Books-A-Million, where he bought her a baby name book. After her husband fell asleep, Olivia stayed up crying and praying. At 5:30 the next morning, she reached for the book, opening it to a page that began with the name “Tyler” and a Bible verse, Matthew 21:22.
“If you believe,” she read, “you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

At an appointment hours later, the doctors told her their original assessment was wrong. Both she and the baby could survive, and they did. In rural West Pelzer, population 810, her son grew into a thoughtful and intensely curious child. At an age when most of his classmates were picking out storybooks from the library, he brought home encyclopedias. He became particularly interested in dinosaurs, memorizing the taxonomic names of dozens of them, although his favorite wasn’t a fearsome carnivore. It was the Maiasaura, an herbivore whose name meant “good mother reptile.” This dinosaur took care of its children. He liked that.

Tyler was serious about the things he deemed important, and he took nothing more seriously than karate, which he earned a junior black belt in at age 10, and church, which he attended almost every Sunday, even when his mother and father didn’t. Tyler brought his devotion home with him, too, requesting that he and his parents pray together each night before they went to sleep.

“Dear Lord,” he always began when his turn came, and sometimes it took four or five minutes for him to reach “Amen.”

“An old soul,” relatives often called the boy, who named his beagle Johnny Cash. Still, Tyler was, in many ways, just a kid. He thought SpongeBob SquarePants was hilarious, and he could play Minecraft for hours.

He didn’t get in trouble often, but when he did, his parents confiscated his many electronics, because nothing irritated him more than that. In a letter to Olivia, he once tried to head off any potential punishment. “I love you mom. You are the best Mom ever,” he wrote, signing it “Love Tyler,” before adding, “P.S. I made a 61 on my math test. I’m sorry.”

A lanky kid who inherited his mother’s green eyes and freckled skin, he liked to play with her long, curly brown hair and pretend that it had special powers. At bedtime, he often fell asleep to her rendition of “La La Lu,” from Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.” As Tyler got older, he asked her not to tell anyone that he still liked it so much.
Tyler adored Olivia, who had been a stay-at-home mom since he was an infant, but the boy most wanted to be like his dad, a bearded, thick-armed Army veteran who worked as an operations manager at an asphalt plant.

Jonathan taught him how to field and throw and hit a baseball, how to hook and clean a bass, and, as he got older, how to fire a gun. Jonathan, a competitive pistol shooter, had been enamored with firearms since childhood, and he wanted Tyler to be, too. He often suspected, though, that his boy acted interested only because he was.

Tyler got bored sitting in the tree stand when they hunted deer, and he went to gun shops with Jonathan just to keep him company. When Tyler was 10, his dad bought him a .22-caliber rifle for Christmas, but the boy cared far more about his new Amazon Fire tablet.
As his 11th birthday approached in 2014, Tyler seemed as content as he’d ever been. He had lots of friends and was excelling at karate. As they did every July, his parents took him to Isle of Palms, on South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast. As usual, they went to Coconut Joe’s, where he ordered fried shrimp and peeled off the breading before he ate them. He played in the ocean, ran on the beach with Johnny Cash, his beagle. He smiled in every photo.

Tyler Paxton, 11, plays on the beach on a family vacation to Isle of Palms, S.C., in early July 2014. (The Paxton family)
On the Sunday before he opened the safe, Tyler went to church, standing up to share prayer requests for a family friend who was having heart surgery and for his grandmother, whose husband had taken his own life, with a gun, two years earlier.
“She’s still missing my Papa,” he explained.
Then came July 25. The Paxtons picked up dinner from Taco Bell and brought it home, and after Tyler finished his nachos, he went to his parents’ room. Sprawled on the bed in blue-jean shorts and a greenish-yellow tank top, he scrolled through YouTube on his mom’s phone until the battery ran down. He briefly came out to the living room and showed Olivia a funny video of an otter trying to dig a snack out of a tool box, then he plugged her phone into a charger.
“I’m gonna go watch cartoons,” Tyler said, before he walked back to their bedroom.
[At 15, Ruben Urbina couldn’t bear his depression anymore. So he called police with a threat.]
Not long after, he reached up to the top of the free-standing gun safe in the corner of the room, got the key, opened the door. Tyler then sat on the floor and faced a mirror, gripping the pistol in his left hand. He raised the barrel to his temple. He pulled the trigger.

To Jonathan, the source of the noise didn’t register right away. He’d heard gunshots thousands of times, but never in his home. Maybe a lightbulb had popped, he thought. Worried that Tyler had shocked himself, his dad rushed down the hall and into the master bedroom. There, he found his son, who was still breathing, and screamed for his wife to call 911.
This was the sort of violence people seldom talked about, or even considered, in communities like theirs, where guns are held dear — where they’re ubiquitous in closets, dresser drawers and unsecured safes. Education, many people argued, was all that mattered, but now a boy educated on every aspect of what to do and what not to do with a gun was being cradled in the arms of his father, the pistol by his side, his blood pooling on the floor.

Tyler, then a young boy, out on a boat. (Family photo)
‘Help my son’
Bob Maxwell knew how that night would end the moment he walked into the Paxtons’ bedroom. Then one of only three police officers in all of West Pelzer, he had heard the “shots fired” call less than a minute earlier, and now he was standing over a father telling his boy how much he loved him. The smell of gunpowder still hung in the air.
“Bob, help my son,” his friend pleaded.
“Jonathan,” Maxwell said, “there’s nothing I can do.”
Jonathan had, up to that point, persuaded Olivia to stay out of the room, fearful that what Tyler looked like then would become the final, lasting image she had of her son. Her patience gone, she approached the doorway.
“Do not let my wife come in this room,” Jonathan told Maxwell, and the officer did as he asked.

“Let me in there,” Olivia demanded, but Maxwell wrapped his arms around her and held on, keeping her out until paramedics arrived and rushed past.
Soon, she and her husband were headed to the hospital.
“God, don’t take my son,” Jonathan prayed, but what he didn’t say aloud, to God or to anyone else, was that an overwhelming sense of shame had already begun to take hold. “How’s my wife gonna ever look at me the same?” he wondered, because, to him, this was his fault.
At the hospital, more than 50 people who knew Tyler from church prayed alongside his parents as they waited for an update. Then word came.
“We weren’t able to save him,” the doctor said, and the sound of wailing spread through the room. Jonathan braced for the blame.
“I deserve it,” he thought.
Police separated the couple, interviewing each of them to ensure that their stories matched and raised no suspicions. With investigators satisfied, the coroner ruled Tyler’s death a suicide, which his parents refused to accept. He had never acted depressed or been the victim of bullying, they said, and in a family that talked openly about feelings, they could not imagine that he wouldn’t have spoken up if something was bothering him.
His parents wondered if he knew the gun was loaded or if he didn’t comprehend the finality of death or if a thought about his grandfather’s suicide had suddenly made him curious. No one could convince them that Tyler understood the consequences of pulling that trigger.
What they didn’t know was that simply owning a gun significantly increased Tyler’s chances of killing himself. In fact, a 2019 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the best predictor of a state’s youth suicide rate is the proportion of homes that contain a firearm. Remarkably, one of the study’s authors said, that single piece of data is a “far more accurate” indicator than the percentage of children in the state who have previously attempted suicide.

“There’s this mythical idea that you can teach kids not to want to handle a gun. … You can’t train or educate curiosity out of a little kid, and teenagers are impulsive, and they act without any thought to the future,” said Denise Dowd, a physician and researcher who has treated more than 500 pediatric gunshot victims. “You have to separate the guns from the kids: the thing that does harm from the thing that’s harmed.”

Bob Maxwell was the first police officer to reach the Paxtons’ house after the shooting. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post).
A survey of 153 teenagers and young adults who survived suicide attempts found that a quarter of them tried to kill themselves within five minutes of deciding to. That makes easy access to guns considerably more dangerous than easy access to, say, a rope or a knife or a bottle of pills, all of which are far less deadly. Because of firearms’ extreme lethality, they’re responsible for half the nation’s suicide deaths, and in the past two decades, nearly 10,000 children have used them to end their own lives.
To Olivia, the coroner’s ruling — why it happened and how it happened — didn’t matter much anyway.
“I don’t care what you write on that paper. It’s not going to change anything for me,” she said. “The only thing I know right now is that I’m never going to see my son again. I don’t care about anything else. Nothing else to me matters, except how am I supposed to live now? What do I do now?”
The why and how did matter to Jonathan, though, because he knew he could have prevented it. He’d gotten the revolver for Olivia back in 1997, at a time when he often worked late. She never liked guns, but Jonathan worried about her being alone at night without him, so he’d bought the pistol and kept it loaded, just in case. He hadn’t once considered hiding it from Tyler because he always assumed his son knew better than to handle it.
“It’s just something I never thought about,” he said.
Not long after Tyler’s death, Jonathan’s brother, his hunting partner since they were kids, approached him.
“Don’t get mad at me,” he said, “but can I take your guns out of the house?”
“I’m not gonna hurt myself,” Jonathan said, although as the words left his mouth, he wasn’t certain they were true. So he agreed. At the house, his brother went in without him, because Jonathan still couldn’t bear to step through the front door. Afterward, he acknowledged that he had one more gun, a 9-millimeter pistol, locked in his truck.

“You’re telling me that because you want me to take it,” his brother said.
“It’s there,” Jonathan responded. “Get it.”

Tyler sits on an all-terrain vehicle with his dad, Jonathan. (Family photo)
Keeping kids safe
So often lost in the debate about guns in America is that the most obvious and urgent step to protect kids from harm would do nothing to infringe on a person’s right to buy or own one. Demanding, by law, that a man with a dozen AR-15s must prevent his deadly weapons from falling into the hands of a child doesn’t mean the man can’t own those weapons, nor does it mean he can’t buy a dozen more. It simply means he must behave responsibly with the ones he has. If everyone in the United States locked up all their firearms today, researchers estimate, the number of gun-related accidental deaths and suicides among children and teenagers would drop by as much as a third.
And yet, a huge number of Americans don’t take that simple step, either because of ignorance, in most cases, or negligence, in some. Researchers who surveyed gun-owning families in the rural South found that a significant proportion of parents had no idea what their children knew about or had done with their firearms, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics. Nearly 40 percent of parents who claimed that their kids didn’t know where they stored their guns were wrong; the kids said they knew. More than 20 percent of parents who claimed that their kids had never handled one of those guns were also wrong; the kids said they had. Notably, children who had been educated on gun safety were just as likely to say they’d played with the weapons. As of 2015, as many as 4.6 million children lived in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm.
[A teen calmly shot 16 classmates, police say. Is his stepfather also to blame?]
Because Congress effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence for two decades, it has been exceedingly difficult to determine which gun safety measures work best. A comprehensive review of available studies by the Rand Corp., however, found that no policy was backed by stronger evidence than child access prevention laws, the most robust of which allow prosecutors to criminally charge adults who negligently store firearms where children can reach them.

Twenty-one states, including South Carolina, had no child access prevention laws as of March, the Giffords Law Center noted. Of the ones that did, only 17, and the District of Columbia, had passed the most stringent versions. But even those statutes, researchers say, are often not enforced, are too limited or carry weak penalties, rendering them far less effective than they could be.
A Washington Post review of 145 school shootings committed by children in the two decades after the Columbine High massacre in 1999 found that the weapon’s source had been publicly identified in 105 cases. In total, the guns those children used were taken from their own homes or those of relatives or friends 80 percent of the time, but in just four instances did the adult owners of the weapons face any criminal punishment for not having locked them up — and none of those prosecutions stemmed from negligent-storage laws.
“We’re looking at a class of crimes where deterrence might actually work,” said Russ Hauge, a former Washington state prosecutor and Second Amendment supporter who tried, in vain, to imprison a gun owner after a third-grader found the man’s .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and took it to school, where it went off, leaving a bullet lodged near the spine of an 8-year-old girl. “If there was a clear law that says felony punishment will ensue if you don’t handle your weapons safely, I think we could get some people’s attention.”
Proponents of safe storage gun legislation have compared it to seat belt laws. As recently as 1984, 65 percent of Americans opposed regulations that made seat belts mandatory. But legislators ignored public opinion, and thanks to new laws, education and technology, seat belt use in this country increased from 11 percent in 1981 to nearly 85 percent in 2010. That single device, and the relentless push to make people secure it across their waists, has saved more than 250,000 lives since the 1970s.

It’s difficult to imagine a prosecutor ever going after a father like Jonathan Paxton, but what if the law Hauge described existed when Jonathan bought that revolver for his wife? What if the pistol came with a pamphlet that outlined the statute and the reasons for it? What if he saw government-sponsored ads that explained why his child’s unfettered access to a loaded firearm dramatically increased the boy’s chances of being harmed? What if he had heard one warning, one piece of data, one personal story, that led him to hide the key that opened the safe that held the gun?

Olivia and Jonathan with the urn containing the ashes of their son, Tyler. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
‘Mama loves you’
Eight days after their son shot himself at their home, Jonathan and Olivia moved back in, because they had to. It was Tyler’s home, too, the place where their memories of him lived and always would. In every room, around every corner, Jonathan could see his son’s face, spotted with that one freckle just above the left eye that he kissed each day. Night after night, Olivia’s mind replayed the bedtime routine she shared with her son.
“Mama loves you,” she’d say.
“Baby loves you,” he’d say, and back and forth they’d go. On quiet evenings after he was gone, Olivia would recite both parts to herself.
The Paxtons left Tyler’s bedroom just the way he had. They didn’t touch the Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper border that they’d put up before their son was born and that he’d insisted they not take down. They didn’t remove the martial arts trophy draped in medals, or the school project about polar bears, or the other one about a local farmer who let Tyler pet his goats and sit on his John Deere tractor.

A school report Tyler wrote about his hero, Jesus. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post).
They didn’t remove his assignment from first grade that began with “I am” next to a blank line. “A good boy and a fisherman,” he answered. “I dream”: “about cookies.” “I say”: “I believe in God.” “I understand”: “my Mom is so lovely.” “I wonder”: “what Heaven looks like.” “I worry”: “everyone that gets hurt.”

In their own bedroom, Tyler’s parents kept turning the pages of the calendar that featured a different photo of him for each month. Olivia’s favorites were the ones that showed his beautifully imperfect smile, caused by what she called a “pull,” which had left one side of his bottom lip slightly higher than the other. At the end of each December, they’d start the calendar over.
For the first two years after Tyler’s death, they didn’t travel back to Isle of Palms for his birthday. On the third, they went to another beach, in Florida, where Jonathan woke up one night with such extreme chest pain that he feared his heart was about to stop. They rushed to the emergency room, but the tests showed nothing.
“You’re just having an anxiety attack,” the doctor told him.
The couple didn’t let Tyler’s death destroy their marriage, as Jonathan had worried it might. Instead, they leaned on each other, and on their faith, more than ever before. Jonathan became an ordained minister and began to preach at the church Tyler used to attend without them.

Olivia and Jonathan at Living Praise Fellowship Church in Greenville, S.C. Olivia cries listening to the bishop talk about their son, Tyler. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post).

Because they wanted people to remember his life, Olivia and Jonathan talked often of their son’s empathy, his humor, his devotion to God and to his family. As painful as it was, they didn’t shy away from talking about how he’d died, either.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” Jonathan would tell his friends. “You can never be too safe.”
Bob Maxwell, the police officer who first responded to the 911 call, didn’t need to hear that to be convinced. He’d followed the ambulance carrying Tyler to the hospital, and on the way, he phoned his ex-wife and asked her to put their two children on the phone. His daughter was a bit older than Tyler, his son a bit younger.

“I love you,” he told his kids, because he needed them to hear it. He stayed with Tyler’s body that night until the coroner arrived, and afterward, he returned to the Paxtons’ home and helped clean up. In their bedroom, he wiped blood from a pair of Tyler’s baby shoes.

Maxwell had come upon gruesome sights before, but what he saw that night unmoored him. He had nightmares. The smell of gunpowder made him feel nauseated. After the funeral, he sat in his patrol car, holding a radar gun as tears cascaded down his cheeks. Eventually, therapy helped him work through the trauma, but the experience had transformed him in at least one way.

For years, Maxwell had returned home from work and left his gun, strapped to a service belt, on his bedroom floor. He had told his kids many times never to touch it, but he suddenly realized that wasn’t good enough. So, he bought a gun safe, shared the code with no one and locked every weapon he owned inside it.

This story is adapted from “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” which will be published March 30 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Nancy Bailey is a retired teacher and a terrific blogger. She and I co-authored a book called EdSpeak and DoubleTalk: A Glossary to Decipher Hypocrisy and Save Public Schooling. We have never met in person but I asked her to help me revise a similar book that I published a decade earlier; it had become obsolete. Now it is the go-to book to understand education jargon and decipher hoaxes. It was a joy to work with her. Nancy wrote this post for me while I was out of commission having surgery.

Why I Write About Students and Public Schools

Democratic Public Schools

Ensuring that the public has access to good public schools after Covid-19 is more critical than ever. We cannot go back to continuous high-stakes testing and schools that punish teachers and students, especially our youngest learners. Schools should also not be allowed to continue to collect unregulated data through online assessments. Parents need stronger FERPA laws. 

I think we have also learned with this pandemic that parents and students value public schools, that technology is a tool but can never replace the classroom.      

Americans own our schools through a democratically elected school board, or at least we should. We lose that ownership when outsiders with ulterior motives to privatize or change schooling’s nature make schools more like a business. They convert the system to charter schools or change curriculums to serve companies that will make money on the school district’s new plan.

The more involved corporations become with public education, the more changes occur within public schools. Common Core, high-stakes standardized tests, the reliance on AP classes and SAT and ACT testing from the College Board, and many tech programs convert public schooling to a privatized system. 

It is crucial to protect public schools from individuals or corporations who wish to remove the “public” in public schools. Parents should be able to be involved in how their schools function. We need parents, teachers, and the community to be active participants in how public schools serve children bringing Americans together. 

School choice fans believe parents should choose their school, but this is a false argument. Most private school administrators will determine who to accept to the school. Charter schools may choose students by lottery, which is not parent choice either. Even if a student is randomly selected, charter schools can always counsel students out.

Charter schools were initially supposed to be for teachers to run. The charters doing the best jobs are likely run by or highly influenced by real teachers. But many charters are run by Educational Management Operations (EMOs) that set the rules and are prone to scandal. For years, charter schools have primarily served children of color, often with harshly run curriculum and punishing discipline. 

It is hard to see why America needs two systems of education. It further divides people, and charter schools are still substandard to a well-run public school system. Charters that work, run by real teachers, could become alternative schools in a public school system.  

Helping students work together in public schools—students with all kinds of backgrounds and students of color—will bring us together as a nation. The diversity in our country should be cherished, not destroyed by privatization. 

When public schools are valued, when school boards are elected and work with the constituents to better schooling for all children, it is the best that democracy can be. We must afford every child a chance to learn in a well-managed, excellently staffed public school. 


I learned to be a special education teacher in the seventies when the All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 became law. It was amazing to see schools open their doors for all children, and universities begin offering specialized classes for different special education areas. I saw it as a shining moment in America.

My undergraduate degree was to teach students with emotional disabilities, with a minor in elementary education. I took challenging coursework. My student teaching took place at one of the best residential treatment centers in the nation, Hawthorn Center, along with an elementary school near Detroit where teachers worked well together, especially in reading. 

Hawthorn Center has struggled with funding since I student taught there, yet many parents desperately search for residential treatment. The elementary school where I student taught closed long ago. I struggle to understand this.  

In the meantime, Teach for America claims that you can teach with five weeks of training, or maybe it is six weeks now. Many from this group go on to lead schools in states and the nation when they never had the kind of preparation necessary to teach children! 


I write about these issues and more. It is sometimes overwhelming that public schools have so many concerns and how children and teens face such hurdles to get good schooling in America. There is no reason why this country should not have the best public school system in the world for all children!

Joel Westheimer is a professor of education at the University of Ottawa. He wrote this article for The Ottawa Citizen and shared it with me. This is a good time for me to mention that I strongly believe in content. In the mid-1980s, I was involved with a large committee that wrote the California K-12 History-Social Studies Framework. We realized that whatever we wrote had to be feasible from the point of view of teaching and learning. We selected the key events and developments that teachers would focus on. When we finished our draft, we sent it to teachers across the state. We received more than 1,000 reviews and read each one carefully. We made many changes. We sought in-depth learning, not a swift canoe ride across the centuries. Depth matters more than breadth.

Westheimer wrote:

Three essential lessons COVID-19 has taught us about education

During the pandemic, we rediscovered what teachers and students have always known: that schooling is about relationships, learning is a social process, and a deep-dive into a topic of interest is worth more than a stress-filled endurance swim in the shallows.

When did the Assyrian empire’s reign over Mesopotamia begin and end?

If you don’t know, you have a lot of company and you’re about to have even more. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless nine- and 10-year-olds missed lessons about one ancient civilization or another this past year.

History and geography aren’t the only subjects affected. Some middle school students won’t learn the three functions of mitochondria. High school math teachers may have skipped lessons in differential equations. And who knows how many missed the opportunity to read Paulo Coelho’s brilliant allegorical novel, The Alchemist.

So what?

The first lesson parents, educators, and policymakers should draw from our collective school experiences during the pandemic is this: content matters much more than coverage. For more than three decades, the school curriculum has become increasingly consumed with all the things students should know before they graduate. That has resulted in an unprecedented global obsession with micro-managing teachers’ work to ensure the right information is taught and with standardized testing to find out if they’re succeeding.

Every day we read about children falling behind, but the curriculum is bursting at the seams. Falling behind what? Behind whom?

Research in teaching and child development tells us that learning how to think analytically is much more important than cramming in material that students won’t remember weeks or years later. We live in an age of instantly accessible information in an infinite number of domains. Living well in the 21st century does not require more information but rather the knowledge and skills needed to sift, understand and assess the quality of information. Teaching content matters, but covering every possible historical event and scientific or mathematical concept does not.

Let’s turn our concern over learning loss during the pandemic to focus on what was gained. We rediscovered what teachers and students have always known: that schooling is about relationships, learning is a social process, and a deep-dive into a topic of great interest is worth more than a stress-filled endurance swim in the shallows. What matters are the connections that teachers make, both to students and their families and between subject matter and the outside world.

A second lesson for education I take away from the pandemic is that inequality undermines the work educators do. This shouldn’t be a new lesson, but it was a wake-up call. COVID-19 has functioned like an x-ray, exposing already existing fault lines: poverty and economic inequality, unequal access to high speed internet and computers, and inadequate resources for those most in need.

Calls during the pandemic for parents to make sure their children don’t fall behind only increased these already existing inequalities. Some parents have the time, resources and education to demand their kids follow the curriculum, maybe even get ahead. Other parents are front-line workers, or holding down two jobs, or working at home with little time for other activities.

School cannot solve all of society’s problems, but they are a place we can acknowledge them. For example, some teachers brought new scrutiny to how they assign grades. Could the way we evaluate students’ prospects reflect the fact that students come from such different starting points? As children return to classrooms, let’s try — both within and outside of schools — to address inequality in meaningful ways.

A third lesson from the pandemic is that teaching is essential work. Remember those amusing memes from last spring when schools shut down?

  • Homeschooling, Day 1: And just like that, teachers were appreciated again;
  • Homeschooling, Day 2: We should double our teachers’ salaries;
  • Homeschooling, Day 3: I must apologize to the teacher for insisting that Suzie was “gifted.”

Funny, yes, but also revealing. Psychologists tells us that good humour often points to truths that everyone knows but nobody admits. I hope that we learn a newfound respect and admiration for the difficult and vital work teachers do. Will it be a little bit harder to claim teachers are lazy or have too much time off or that class size doesn’t matter? Teachers’ working conditions are children’s learning conditions and we should do everything we can to assist their efforts.

There are other lessons to take away. At the University of Ottawa, colleagues and I started the research collaborative CHENINE (Change, Engagement, and Innovation in Education) to make sure these lessons don’t get lost in the shuffle back to brick-and-mortar schooling. Already we’ve learned that educational technology can enrich good teaching but can’t replace poor teaching; that we could give students less homework and fewer tests; that the outdoors is a vastly underused resource for teaching and learning; and that trusting teachers’ front-line judgments is crucial.

When school returns to full swing, let’s give teachers latitude in what, how and when to teach any particular subject matter. Their primary job should be to restore a sense of safety, nurture a sense of possibility and rebuild the community lost through extended social isolation.

By the way, the Assyrian empire fell in 609 BC. I had to look it up. 

Joel Westheimer is an education columnist for CBC Radio and professor of education at the University of Ottawa. His most recent book is What kind of citizen: Educating our children for the comm

The mainstream media are filled with warnings about “learning loss” and how we must measure it and why students should go to summer school to make up for what they have “lost.” If we can’t quantify it, they say, how can we know which students are behind? This is silly. There was no “pre-test,” so there can’t be a “post-test.” A test that students take this spring can’t possibly demonstrate “learning loss,” since they can’t be compared to anything else. If you want to know where students are in their learning, ask their teacher.

Here are some good readings on “learning loss.”

Peter Greene gathered some and calls his post a “learning loss debunkery reader.” And don’t miss Peter’s personal tale of his own “learning loss.” It began right after high school graduation, when he realized he had forgotten algebra!

Russ on Reading turned “learning loss” into a Henny Penny fable, in which the wolves are trying to get into the henhouse.

“Wait a minute. Are we sure our children have lost their learning? I know a year away from the schoolhouse is concerning. And I know the online learning is not as good as beak to beak learning, but just what are we worried about here. Our children are learning lots of things. They have learned how to make the best of a bad situation. They have learned how we all need to pitch in to help each other. They have learned to wear masks in public. They have learned a lot about communicable diseases. They may have different learning this year, but is that the same as losing learning?  Before we let the foxes into the hen house, we better be sure there is a big problem.”

The Zoom meeting went silent. Goosey Loosey shut down Foxy Loxy’s Zoom feed. She said, “You know maybe we have bigger things to worry about than learning loss. I am going to go read my chicks a book.”

When I started the new blog format, I said I would repost blogs from others only in rare instances. This is one of those rare instances. Peter Greene has written a devastating analysis of the oligarchs’ plans to attack public school teachers and defund public schools in Arizona. You need to read this story. The privatizers’ game plan is on full display, in all its ugliness. It’s a reverse Robin Hood scheme, which will steal from everyone so as to reward the rich.

Here are a few excerpts from the exceptionally vicious legislation that has been filed:

Arizona has lost its damn mind, this week passing some of the stupidest, most aggressively anti-public ed laws anywhere, including an absolutely insane law requiring teachers to file lesson plans a year in advance.

Arizona has always been a strong contender for most anti-public education state in the county. They’ve had trouble convincing teachers to work there for years (at one point they were recruiting in the Phillipines), using the one two punch of low salaries along with rock-bottom spending on classrooms (this is the state wherethe house GOP leader contended that teachers were just working second jobs so they could buy boats). In the meantime, they have done their best to foster charter profiteering and set up vouchers at the expense of public ed. Did I mention that Arizona is the Koch home base?

There was no reason to be surprised when Arizona’s teachers rose up in revolt. Governor Ducey made noises about recognizing the problem, but he’s been trying to slap teaches around ever since. Arizona legislators have come after teachers and public schools before, but this week is really something special.

This week Ducey issued an executive order requiring all schools to return o in-person learning by March 15, with exceptions only for the counties (there are three) with high transmission–there, the middle and high schools can stay remote. No other exceptions, no consideration for local concerns, issues, situations, etc. 

But now for the legal highlights of the week.

SB1058 is the one I mentioned above. In this bill, every school (charters get hit with this foolishness, too) must, by July 1 of each year, post, where parents can see it, all lesson plans, materials, activities, textbooks, videos, online stuff. Parents in Arizona already have the right to review all materials, so nthis is just a next step. “It should be reasonably easy to access the information.” This bill passed the Senate on Tuesday.

This is more than just an unnecessary burden on teachers. It’s more than just a way to legislate bad teaching (if you already know what you’re doing in class on a particular Tuesday five months from now, you are not doing a great job teaching). It also makes each teacher’s lesson planning–their professional intellectual property–open to the public. Starting a charter school but you don’t know a damn thing about teaching? Just log on and lift your curriculum, scope, sequence, plans, etc from any actual teacher…

All of this comes on the heels of a massive voucher expansion in Arizona, worth noting because it was one more example of the state’s GOP working in direct defiance of Arizona voters, who decisively rejected voucher expansion just two years ago. 
It’s an ugly frustrating mess. What exactly is your next move if you’re in a state where the reaction to “If you keep this up, you’ll destroy public schools” is “Good.”Jeb Bush is a big fan of Arizona’s work, mostly because it so closely follows his own playbook in Florida. It all points to an ugly future in which the wealthy can buy the education they want and not have to pay taxes to educate Those People’s Children. 

Seriously, if you want to place bets on which state will be first to destroy its public schools, you wouldn’t be wrong to bet on Arizona. It is a wholly-owned Koch franchise.


The nation’s two teachers’ unions joined together to issue an unusual joint statement that advises federal, state, and local leaders what must be done not only to revive education after the pandemic but to restart it with a fresh vision that focuses on the needs of children, not assumptions about their “learning loss” or “COVID slide.”

They introduce the document and its visionary proposals with these words:

Nation’s educators release shared agenda to ensure all students succeed Organizations offer proven ways to help students overcome Covid-19 opportunity gaps and meet students’ academic, social, and emotional needs
 WASHINGTON, DC – Today the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the nation’s two largest educators’ unions, released a bold, shared agenda to ensure that all students receive the supports and resources they need to thrive now and in the future.  

Over the course of the last month, AFT and NEA have come together to define the essential elements needed to effectively understand and address the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted students’ academic, social, and developmental experiences. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to create the public schools all our students deserve,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “It is our mission to demand stronger public schools and more opportunities for all students- Black and white, Native and newcomer, Hispanic and Asian alike. And we must support the whole learner through social, emotional and academic development. The ideas presented in this roadmap will lay the groundwork to build a better future for all of our students.” 

“COVID-19 has laid bare this country’s deep fissures and inequities and our children, our educators and our communities have endured an unprecedented year of frustration, pain and loss,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “As vaccine access and effectiveness suggest the end is in sight, it is incumbent on us to not only plan our recovery, but to reimagine public schooling so our children, families and educators can thrive.  

“The crises gripping our country are weighing heavily on young people, who are the future of our communities. That’s why our schools must, at a minimum, be supported and well-resourced to address our students their trauma, social-emotional, developmental and academic needs. This framework is an invaluable tool to help us get there,” Weingarten added. 

Shared with Sec. of Education Cardona last week, Learning Beyond Covid-19, A Vision for Thriving in Public Education offers the organizations’ ideas on ways our education systems can meet students where they are academically, socially, and emotionally.  The framework outlines five priorities that can serve as a guide for nurturing students’ learning now and beyond COVID-19 including learning, enrichment and reconnection for this summer and beyond; diagnosing student well-being and academic success; meeting the needs of our most underserved students; professional excellence for learning and growth; and an education system that centers equity and excellence. 

The full document can be found here

Denisha Jones explains here what happened at a televised event in Pittsburgh when she asked candidate Joe Biden if he would eliminate standardized testing. Denisha is a highly accomplished woman and a champion for children.

Biden’s Broken Promise: Time to Opt Out! 

On December 14, 2019, I asked President Biden a question about standardized testing. Seeking the Democratic nomination, he had joined other presidential candidates at a Public Education Forum, the creation of a collective of organizations, including the Schott Foundation, Network for Public Education, and Journey for Justice, live-streamed and moderated by MSNBC.

I had all day to frame my question–Biden was last in the lineup. Given the widespread havoc that standardized testing has wreaked, I had to cover a lot of ground. I wanted to demonstrate the negative impact of standardized testing on teacher autonomyand early childhood education. I needed to emphasize the racist history of standardized testing to remind everyone how we got to this point.  

“If you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized tests in public schools?” I asked.   “Yes,” said Biden. He told me that I was preaching to the choir and assured me that he was well-informed about the over-reliance on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and students.  He agreed that we need to give teachers the power to determine the curriculum and build children’s confidence. 

“When testing is the measure of whether or not the student is successful…teaching to a standardized test makes no sense,” he said. The question went viral, with many educators hopeful that this dark cloud would finally evaporate under a Biden presidency.  At the time, I didn’t believe him, and though I voted for him, I had no faith that he would keep his promise to me and America’s teachers.

I knew that Democrats were too deeply aligned with neoliberal education reform policies to end standardized testing. Some thought otherwise, hoping for a positive influence from  Dr. Jill Biden, a teacher. Democratic presidents may publicly speak out against such assessments while filling their administration with people who support them.   I remembered that President Obama also had delivered a critique of testing and then ramped it up with his Race to the Top program.  Biden could have selected Dr. Leslie Fenwick, with a proven track record against standardized testing, as his Secretary of Education. Instead, he chose a moderate, unknown candidate, Miguel Cardona.  

I was right.

On February 22ndChalkbeat reported, “States must administer federally required standardized testing this year…” the administration announced. While schools will not be held accountable for scores and can administer the test online and shorten it, states will not receive an exemption through federal waivers. 

Of course, when Biden made his promise to me, we had no idea that COVID-19 would upend public education as we know it, plunging teachers, students, and families into the world of remote teaching and learning. Now would be the perfect time for Biden to make good on his promise. Last year’s tests were canceled. As the pandemic rages on and districts struggle to move from remote to hybrid and fully in-person, why should Biden insist on keeping the standardized tests he claimed made no sense in a pre-COVID world?

Everyone is asking me what we should do now. Fortunately, parents and students have an excellent tool at their disposal.They can opt out. 

I cannot imagine a more opportune time for parents to refuse to have their children participate in a standardized test.  The last thing our children need is the added pressure of a test that won’t count, but they are still required to take.  Our focus should be on helping children build the resilience they need, not just tosurvive the trauma from this pandemic but to thrive in this new education landscape.  Jesse Hagopian passionately reminds us,  

“While corporate education reformers prattle on about a need for more high-stakes testing to evaluate ‘learning loss,’ what students truly require is the redirection of the billions of dollars wasted on the testing-industrial complex toward supporting educators and students: to gain access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations, as well as psychologists, nurses, social workers, trauma counselors, after-school programs, restorative justice coordinators, and more.”

Opting out of standardized testing is a parent’s choice and right, despite administrators’ push back. Pre-COVID 19, some schools tried to force children to sit and stare for hours while their classmates took the exam. Now that testing has gone virtual, some parents had to give up their right to opt out when they signed up for online schooling. They can make you logon to the testing platform, but no one can force your child to answer the questions.  

I am not alone in my calls for widespread opt out. On Thursday, February 25th, the recently resigned Chancellor of New York City Schools, Richard Carranza, called for parents to refuse the tests. NYC Opt Out and Integrate NYC hosted a town hall to strategize opting out of spring testing.  You can sign the Integrate NYC petition here

Opting out will not hurt schools, but it will hurt the testing corporations, desperate to prove that these assessments can survive in virtual schooling and protect their bottom line. Two years in a row without standardized testing would clear the way to finally dismantle this racist practice–the likely rationale forhis broken promise. The time has come to banish this obsolete relic of a painful past.  

For more information on the opt out movement, visit

You can also read my blog, Five Myths About the Standardized Testing and the Opt Out Movement

Full Text of My Question

Good afternoon. My name is Denisha Jones, and I am the Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Today I’m here representing the Network for Public Education Action, Defending the Early Years, the Badass Teachers Association, and The Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action National Steering Committee. 

Teaching has changed drastically over the last 20 years. Instead of being allowed to use their expertise to develop creative,engaging, culturally relevant lessons, teachers are often forced to use a scripted curriculum and move students along even when they need more time. Many teachers feel more like a test prep tutor than a teacher of children and are concerned that both teachers and students are evaluated too heavily based on test scores. Beginning in kindergarten, young children are losing time for play and discovery and instead forced into developmentally inappropriate academic instruction in an effort to get them prepared for tests. Although formal testing does not begin until 3rd grade, younger students are bombarded with practice tests that narrow the curriculum and often leave many of them hating school.

Given that standardized testing is rooted in a history of eugenics and racism, if you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized tests in public schools? 

VIDEO: Watch Biden’s response here


Denisha Jones is the Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a former kindergarten teacher and preschool director who spent the past 17 years in teacher education.  Denisha is an education justice advocate and activist. She serves as the Co-Director for Defending the Early Years, the Assistant Executive Director for the Badass Teachers Association, an administrator for United Opt Out National, and the Network for Public Education board. Since 2017, she has served on the national Black Lives Matter at School steering committee. In 2020 she joined the organizing committee for Unite to Save Our Schools. Her first co-edited book, Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, was published in December 2020 by Haymarket Books. She is an attorney.

The BBC reports that the British Psychological Society warns that policymakers should emphasize children’s well-being rather than “catching up” with academics. They are concerned that children are facing too much pressure as the adults make decisions about what to do next. All schools in England are expected to open by March 8.

Dr Dan O’Hare, co-chair of the BPS division of educational and child psychology, said it was “absolutely understandable” that parents are concerned children have “been missing out on many aspects of their formal education” – but warned against setting expectations too high.

“The notion that children need to catch up or are ‘behind’ at school due to the pandemic reinforces the idea that children have ‘one shot’ at their education and puts them under even more pressure to perform academically after what has been a challenging and unprecedented time for everyone,” he told the PA News agency.

Congressman Jamaal Bowman, experienced teacher and principal and teacher, was elected last November and now is a member of the House Education Committee. He was outraged by the announcement that the Biden administration demands a resumption of annual testing. He denounced it as “a big mistake.” He knows what kids need, and it’s not testing.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman on Tuesday joined progressive education experts in criticizing the Biden administration’s decision to mandate standardized testing in schools despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“We have an obsession with arbitrary testing metrics above all else, even in the middle of a pandemic that’s dislodged every facet of American life.”
—Rep. Jamaal Bowman

Bowman (D-N.Y.)—a former teacher and principal—argued that “prioritizing testing in the middle of the pandemic is a big mistake.”

“It’s a mistake that reflects a broader problem in American education,” the first-term congressman said in a statement. “We have an obsession with arbitrary testing metrics above all else, even in the middle of a pandemic that’s dislodged every facet of American life. We’ve forgotten that testing is one useful tool, and should not be the goal of education in and of itself.”