Thursday, December 29, 2022

Happy Days? A look past the myth

During the holiday season, it seems like we’re constantly being invited to reminisce on happier pasts. 


With apologies to Grease, The Fonz, American Graffiti, and other fantasies spawned in the ‘70s to look backward, there wasn’t a magical period in U.S. history when the nation experienced a widespread period of bliss and harmony.  And for many people, the Disney movies of the ‘50s and early ‘60s that solidified that myth weren’t a simulacrum of real life.  Ask the braceros who’d been invited to fill in the worker shortage at the beginning of WWII and by the early ‘60s lived in squalid camps and worked under conditions that eventually led to their organizing the United Farm Workers.  Ask the west coast Japanese who continued to feel the impacts of loss and exclusion for decades after they returned from the WWII internment camps.  Ask the LGTBQ+ folks who lived in daily fear of losing everything, including their lives, if they even peeped outside their closets during that era.  Ask Emmett Till’s family – or ask any Black family who lived through that time – how safe they felt when they left the communities where they’d been purposely segregated.  The list could go on, but you get the point.  The myth of a post-WWII period of “happy days” is just that:  a myth. 


The myth comes from the post-war economic boom that was fueled by vast governmental spending and a resulting private sector economic expansion.  Since the nation typically equates economic prosperity for dominant groups with happiness, there’s a belief that economic expansion of that era must’ve created happy times for all.  But to see how the myth breaks down, you only need to look at individuals in smaller groups instead of the macroeconomics.  My dad was in WWII, but he wasn’t in the armed services.  When he went for a physical at the recruiting station, they discovered that he had an enlarged heart.  Despite being a college football standout a few years before, his heart condition meant he couldn’t enlist.  So he went to the Red Cross and was hired to go to the South Pacific as a Red Cross director.  He wasn’t allowed to serve as a soldier, but he wanted to contribute and serve however he could.  


In and of itself, that’s not remarkable.  After all, millions of people volunteered in that era.  What I find remarkable is that Black folks like my dad were willing to be part of an effort to maintain a society that devalued and, in many ways, sought to harm them.  It wasn’t just my dad.  The 442nd Regimental Combat team in WWII was comprised of Japanese American men, many whose families were confined to internment camps.  The 92nd Infantry Division of segregated African American men fought in the nation’s earliest efforts to free Europe during the liberation of Italy.  Black Navy sailors in Port Chicago, California loaded munitions onto ships with no training or safety measures, even after a preventable explosion killed over 300 men.  People of color volunteered their lives in service to a nation that would go back to devaluing them at war’s end.  For my father, it meant coming back to the U.S. for a few years and then expatriating to Ethiopia where he could work for the Ethiopian government and be treated as an equal. 


It wasn’t just the people of color who were damaged by the war and faced the consequences of their experiences in the period that’s mistakenly called the “happy days.”  The people who returned from WWII to experience the economic boom all had experienced the horrors of events where millions lost their lives.  I remember in the 1990s when my in-laws were at a Catholic mass to honor their 50th wedding anniversary.  As they went forward and knelt to receive communion, my father-in-law Art began crying.  It was touching to see him emotionally affected in that moment, something I’d not seen him do in the years I’d known him.  I assumed that the emotions arose from remembering so much that had happened in those 50 years.  As we talked at the reception that followed, Art explained that his reaction was from remembering all the men who fought alongside him when they fought too many battles on too many Pacific islands.  At that moment, he was overcome thinking about people who never came home and never had the chance to live the life he’d lived. 


I knew that those images haunted Art.  In the years immediately after the war, as he was becoming a new husband and father, he was hospitalized periodically with what was then called “shell shock” and now is understood to be post-traumatic stress disorder.  He was expected, after each brief hospitalization, to return to his job, his family, and his community to pretend nothing had happened.  I know what it was like to be 18 and trying to decipher how to be an adult and find life direction.  I cannot begin to understand what it must have been like for a generation of 18-year-olds to find themselves daily in circumstances where they could lose their life at any moment while having to take other people’s lives to survive.  Then after a short boat trip, they were sent home to live.  The trauma of war stayed with that generation throughout all the years I’ve known them as they struggled with alcohol, being abusive, or became so narrowly focused and goal driven that they risked all parts of their life to reach their aims.


The people of that generation have been called heroes, or, as Tom Brokaw termed them, “The Greatest Generation.”  Those are convenient tropes, but as literary devices often do, giving a simple label (especially to a generation of people) misses the complexity of what’s really happening.  Both my dad and father-in-law were deeply impacted from the war and they both had to grapple with the effects of the war throughout their lives.  For my dad, that meant working full time, and being vigorously political with his time after work and on weekends.  He spent little time not driving himself, and he died at 54 of a heart attack.  For my father-in-law, it meant having very few close friends and being obsessive about his religion – so much so that when he was older and had dementia, he would wander to the church a mile away in the middle of the night looking for a priest to hear his confession.  I knew of few people of that generation who escaped unscarred.  And many passed those scars along to their children through overindulgence, demands for high achievement, physical and emotional abuse, or obsessions with material gains – pursuit of unhealthy behaviors to fill the damages in their lives.  The “greatest generation” struggled to find itself.  Read Alan Ginsburg’s poem Howl and you’ll glimpse some of their struggle.  Although some of the adults from that era lived with healthy relationships and healthy, balanced lives, in my experience, the well-balanced in that generation weren’t normative. 


The happy days mythology didn’t fit their children’s lives either.  I can look to my own experience during the era as an example.  I’ve written about this, and I’ve spoken about it in presentations, but it seems worth repeating here:  I’m proud that I graduated in the lowest third of my high school class.  When I graduated, my high school posted the list of their graduates publicly; and they listed graduates in order of GPA.  I was in the lowest third of that list.  When I say this during a presentation, I assume that people are imagining that my current pride comes in my accomplishments since that time.  After all, I went to earn advanced degrees from institutions where there’s some selectivity.  However, that’s not why I’m proud of my lack of achievement in high school.  Lots of people earn lots of degrees, and I’m just lucky enough to be one of them.


During my presentations, I explain that fortune.  I also explain that my pride comes in appreciating who I was as an adolescent.  I was in an educational system and a community that undervalued me as a human and didn’t understand what I could contribute.  The entire system was rigged to favor only certain people.  I’d have had to change who I was to be able to have even the limited success that the system would allow me to have.  I’m proud that I saw that in my youth and opted out.  My experiences in that community and its education system eventually fueled my drive to participate in making education something different than what I’d experienced.  But at the time, my intuitive reaction was to produce the minimum so that I could get away from both the schools and that community as soon as I was old enough.  That intuitive reaction allowed me to preserve who I am.  To do anything else would’ve forced me to become something less than that.  It was later, as I became an educator, that I gained the tools to fight oppression effectively.  So I remain pretty proud of that kid who reacted healthily to oppression by refusing to participate.  In my “happy days,” that was the right choice.  That’s a choice that I see young people still making as schools and schooling still haven’t lived to their promise of educating all equitably. 


The happy days myth keeps some of us from seeing the struggles that were very real then and that keep some of us looking longingly backward instead of seeing the flaws and looking to solutions.  It’s what fuels fables that the U.S. was once “great,” and that we should strive to return to that greatness.  It’s what has some states and communities reaching backward to regain a past that didn’t exist for many people.  The “don’t say gay” rules in Florida and the “anti-woke” legislation that states are considering and passing errantly build from these myths.  The backlash that has produced these laws comes from a wholehearted belief in the happy days myth and that anyone who doesn’t believe the myth is anti-American or someone who hates the country and is attempting to distort the past.


Mythology is good when it teaches us lessons:  Icarus flying too close to the sun; Oedipus’ hubris; the dangers of Narcissus’ self-absorption; and so on.  But when we substitute mythology for history, we lose the opportunity to examine what’s happened and learn the past’s lessons.  If the purveyors of our popular television, movies, and novels want to use the familiarity of the past as an easy entry to storytelling, let’s appreciate that as storytelling, not as history.  Let’s not confuse what we see, hear, or read in those accounts as being an accurate representation of life to which we should aspire to return. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

How Not to Evaluate a Grant

Someone sends an e-mail message.  They received a grant that needs an evaluator.  They wrote an evaluation plan, and the plan requires an annual report.  They need someone to write the report.  Sometimes, they’ll call just as the funded project is underway; other times, they call when the report is due in a few months.  Sometimes, it’s a private, foundation grant; however, more often, it’s a federal grant.  Regardless of the source and the timing, they’re calling me far too late in the process.  I explain as professionally as I can that what they’re most often seeking is a compliance report rather than evaluation.  If they’re willing, I’ll help them do more than write a compliance report.  If they’re not, I wish them well. 


Any funded organization should show compliance to the funder’s requirements and progress in meeting the outcomes they established in their funding request.  However, the summative analysis within an annual report is a small part of what an evaluation could and should provide to any project.  Because I, and every other person who provides external evaluations, have these discussions often, I decided to write some recommendations for organizations that are writing funding requests so that they can understand what they miss by having a cursory, summary report of their project as their only attempt at evaluation. 


Recommendation 1:  Bring in an evaluator as you are designing your project – and it usually should not be the grant writer, especially if you’re using an external grant writer.  There’s an industry of grant writers who develop ancillary businesses by writing themselves into a grant as an external evaluator once the project is funded.  Typically, grant writers understand how to write a successful proposal.  That typically makes them qualified to write evaluations that ensure compliance to the outcomes written into the grant.  In contrast, an evaluator needs to be someone with a strong set of analytical tools, who can write objectives that are clear, yet provide for ongoing analyses of a project as it unfolds; who understands both qualitative and quantitative measures and when to apply them; who understands organizational development and systems; and who can recommend methods and processes that will assist the project to understand a project’s ongoing progress. 


An evaluator shouldn’t drive the aims of the grant, but that person should work alongside you to help you refine those aims to the betterment of your project.  That’s much more involved than writing a compliance report of simplistic objectives that you’ll meet each year or at the end of funding.  Grant writers usually don’t have the skills required to do all that.  If you find one who does have the skills of an evaluator, it might make sense to include that person as the external evaluator.  However, in my experience, folks who are busy writing grants sometimes find that they have to back out of the evaluation work as it competes with their more lucrative grant writing (that’s sometimes the reason that I get that e-mail request so late in the process).  


Recommendation 2:  As you’re writing your grant proposal, work with your evaluator to write outcomes and performance measures that will have meaning to you, not just to the funder.  Unlike compliance outcomes, the ones that a trained evaluator will help you generate will be more consequential for you as an organization.  Those will help you develop a plan that measures how and why the project is succeeding or not succeeding while it’s underway.  A skilled evaluator will help you design outcomes that are measurable, but, more importantly, outcomes that are useful to your organization as measures of progress – and measures of causes of that progress.  When done well, those measures will evaluate both the project and the organization in which the project exists.  Knowing that you met or didn’t meet a goal at the end of a funding year, or the end of the project, is not helpful if you don’t understand how or why that happened – or what those outcomes mean to you organizationally.  An evaluator will ask key questions that will help you to measure formatively so that you’re not waiting to the end to see what impacts your project is having.  That typically won’t happen if the evaluator isn’t helping to design the evaluation. 


Recommendation 3:  Make certain that your evaluation includes those formative analyses to determine what’s happening in the project as the project is underway.  The grants I’ve seen without this have outcomes that are simple numeric indicators that are easy to report.  To restate and emphasize this point, that happens because grant writers generally don’t know more about assessment and evaluation beyond identifying summative measures that will fulfill the funder’s needs.  But that misses a critical opportunity to learn and evolve from the grant.  More than one project I evaluated over the years began with a premise that a specific intervention was the solution that would help meet a challenge.  For these projects, as my team and I conducted the initial, probing analyses that an experienced evaluator will build into all projects, we sometimes discovered that the funded intervention is a small component of the possible solution.  With all of those projects, the organizations adapted their project to think more holistically and, as a result, had a more significant impact than the project originally intended.  That would not have happened if projects had not built sophisticated, formative analyses into their evaluation plans. 


What organizations often don’t consider when they’re writing a funding proposal is this opportunity to learn and to grow from the project.  Yes, of course, you want to change something about your work.  That’s what grants help you to do.  But you miss a critical opportunity to help your organization learn from the experience if you don’t build a formative learning model into your project.  All the organizations I work with don’t have the time or resources to do the kind of exploration that I’m suggesting in their normal operations.  Having an evaluator look deeply at your project can also be a way to leverage the work on the grant into your larger organizational needs.  The interviews, observations, surveys, analyses of documents, etc. that an evaluator will use to analyze your project formatively will give you a picture of how the project operates within your larger systems.  During one project that I was evaluating, my team’s analysis discovered that the organization’s IT structure and systems were hindering the implementation of the project.  We conducted a separate analysis of the IT department and how people perceived and interacted with it.  We were able to provide an additional report of our findings about the IT department, and that report had implications well beyond the project.  If we hadn’t done that work, the project might have looked elsewhere for the answers to questions about the project’s efficacy. 


Recommendation 4:  See an evaluation as an integral component of the grant’s work.  You’re seeking funding that will allow you to do work that’s beyond your organization’s base funding.  Take advantage of that and allow the evaluation to inform your organization’s work generally.  Use the evaluator’s expertise to help you operate.  In grant-funded projects that I evaluate, I typically will either design or implement measures that allow us to review documents, interview, survey, or observe activities to examine what is happening during the project.  That provides information about the project; however, it also provides a picture of the overall organization.  A grant-funded evaluator cannot help but to give that larger picture, if that work is seen as more than compliance checking.  If you’re an executive who has a grant-funded project and you’re not taking advantage of this important byproduct of every externally funded project, you’re shortchanging your organization.


Recommendation 5:  View the evaluator as a critical member of the project management.  All the above recommendations are of no use if the evaluator doesn’t participate in the design and implementation of the model.   In my consulting practice, I learned this the hard way and stopped serving as an external evaluator unless I am considered part of the project management team.  I don’t see my role as driving the direction of a project; however, as decisions are made by the executive team, I want to be there to offer advice on how to measure the impacts of decisions.  I also want to be there as program decisions are made so that I understand what it means for the work I need to provide the client.  At times, I’ve even provided support with strategic planning so that the organization could refine its intent and where the grant should fit that intent. 


Early in my consulting career, I would find myself working on an evaluation measure and in casual discussions with the project manager, the person would offer something like, “But we’re not doing that part of the project anymore.  We’ve decided to try something else.”  I understand that projects evolve over time.  They should.  By being part of the project management team, I can be aware of those changes as they happen so I can adjust my work to fit what’s happening.  That becomes especially critical when an annual report is due.  I can reference changed plans to explain the rationale for those changes if I have my notes from a meeting where the changes occurred.  That’s even more critical if those changes involve an activity that’s tied to a key outcome for the project.


Closing Thoughts:


In almost 30 years of evaluation work that’s looked at everything from small, private foundation grants to federally funded projects that involve multiple organizations and locations, I’ve learned that organizations that take advantage of the opportunities that evaluation offers are often organizations that grow and thrive.  Rather than chasing funding, they tend to look at grants and projects strategically to help them in their evolution.  What I’m advocating for, here, is that organizations be more like that in the ways in which they select and work with a critical role that their funding provides for them. 


Does it cost more to do this?  Yes and no.  In the short-term, yes, and in the long-term, no.  You’ll have to budget more for an evaluator in a grant proposal than you would pay for an annual compliance review.  However, the institutional support you’ll get for this far outweighs what you’d spend to hire an internal employee to provide the kind or institutional analyses that an evaluator offers.  Besides, in my recent experiences, private funders especially are now looking for more thoughtful analyses than compliance reports. 


There are resources that can help you find the kind of person I describe above.  The American Evaluation Association maintains a site where you can find members to interview about your needs:  Like contracting for any work, you should interview a few people and get references to make a selection.  There are local affiliates of AEA that can be useful in finding people, too.  Check out:  As you’re interviewing, give them this essay and ask how they’d provide the services that I describe.  But, as noted above, you should be seeking an evaluator as you’re writing your proposal.  Do yourself a favor and don’t do that after you’ve written the proposal.  Once you see what a trained evaluator can do for you in designing and implementing a project, you’ll never do anything else.


I’ve waited to write this until I am no longer accepting clients so that no one accuses me of making this statement to advocate for a model that benefits me.  Throughout my academic career, I accepted evaluation work to keep current in the field and to have ways to engage my graduate students.  These days, I have other priorities.  For the past five years, I’ve only accepted a few client projects; and, at this stage, I’m not taking any more.  So please see this as coming from a colleague who also managed funding from granting agencies – in addition to having been an external evaluator.  Please see this as an opportunity to ask yourself questions about the next grant, the next funding source, or the next project where you’ll seek to better your organization.


I wish you all the best.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Back in My Time: Thoughts on education and dedication on the day after Labor Day

Warning:  This is an old guy’s tale of “back in my time.”  But I think it’s worth telling and maybe even worth reading because I may have a different take on the issue involved than other back-in-my-time stories I’ve heard other old guys tell.  As a new school year begins, I’ve been thinking.


My wife and I began our married life with a zero-based budget.  Unlike the traditional zero-based budget that’s used to manage businesses, ours was zero-based because we had no money.  No doweries, checks that people gave us at our wedding, prior savings as we prepared for marriage.  Zero.  Every month when we first started, we could spend to the limit of what we earned.  It took us a few weeks to move out of the cheap motel where we started and into an apartment.  After that, we scraped together $100 to buy our first car that didn’t run very well or often.  If we spent everything, we started at zero the next month.  You can argue that we should’ve saved and waited to have the resources to begin married life.  But that’s not the way we did it.  I worked in a warehouse and then an office for our first five years of marriage, and we always had food, shelter, clothing, and a few extra dollars – what we needed.  After five years of marriage and living a working life, and after much discussion, I decided to become a teacher, left my job, and became a full-time college student. 


We moved to the area where the college was and started over, both getting full-time jobs while I also attended classes full time.  During the last couple of years, I worked 40+ hours a week and weekends as a maintenance mechanic at a local newspaper.  That job helped ensure that I left college with no debt since I was paid enough to live and to pay for tuition.  I was committed to becoming a teacher, so the work was what I needed to do.  However, I graduated in the late 1970s, when there weren’t any openings in education.  And to add to that, I majored in English – a field where there really weren’t going to be any openings.  The joke at the time was that you could find English majors on any street corner with a sign that said, “Will Teach for Food.”  Still, I was young (or at least “youngish” since I graduated at age 27).  And I had youthful faith in my ability to succeed.  When I graduated from college, a private school offered a job teaching high school, and I took it. 


In that first teaching job, I took a 50% cut in pay from my job at the newspaper.  Teaching at a private school paid pretty low wages, but I was teaching.  I was dedicated to making a career as a teacher, so I figured I could work summers and maybe weekends to make enough money to survive.  During my first and second summers of teaching, I worked on the maintenance crew for the school where I taught (they even loaned me a pickup truck to drive), and I drove tour buses on weekends and evenings during the school year.  I was used to working long hours from having worked full time in college while enrolled in full-time courses.  It just made sense that I’d sacrifice early in my career with the hopes that I’d make enough later to get ahead.  Besides, my wife was working as a secretary, and she made twice what I was making; so we had enough to live. 


After a year at the private school, I found a job teaching junior high at a public school, and my salary doubled.  We weren’t going to get rich from the increase, but the salary and my wife’s salary as an administrative assistant allowed us, at that point 10 years into our marriage, to buy a condo and start living a middle-class life.  It would’ve been financially challenging if we had kids, but we didn’t, and it all worked.  Our lives weren’t extravagant, but I wasn’t pressured to find summer or evening employment and could pursue a master’s degree during summers.  As had been the case for my bachelor’s degree, I paid for the costs of the degree as I went along.  I also finished that degree with no debt while we traded upward from our condo and eventually lived in a split-level house in the suburbs.  The story sounds very American-success-story, doesn’t it?  I worked hard, started with nothing, and reached my goals, doing the work I chose to do and being rewarded for effort and dedication. 


Except I don’t quite see things that way, especially as that mythical American dream might apply to teachers starting today.  I could work full time while completing a bachelor’s degree because of the kindness of an employer who let me work my hours around a college schedule.  I had the support of a spouse who took a job as a custodian one year cleaning women’s dorms for spoiled young women at the college where I completed my BA.  Her job paid for a half-year’s free tuition for me, a spousal benefit that came with the job.  And the cost of tuition at a small, private college then was $2,000 a year.  While that tuition was relatively expensive in the mid-1970s, it was nowhere near comparable to the exorbitant costs that today’s students pay. 


My tuition was less than 10% of my wife’s and my combined, full-time salaries when I was in college.  For a student today to earn similarly while in college, that student would need an income of at least $110,000 for even in-state tuition at a state school in my state.  If students attempted to attend a private college and pay for it, like I did, earning a salary where tuition was 10% of their income today, they would need to earn in excess of $300k annually.  Yes, I worked hard and got where I wanted to get.  The sacrifices I made paid off.  I had a rewarding and fulfilling career in education, eventually working in higher education, earning a doctorate, and having the most privileged job on the planet as a university professor.  But what I did is impossible for current educators who begin with nothing as I did. 


Those teachers begin their careers saddled with crushing debt while being paid well below market rates in comparison to similarly educated professionals.  We ask educators, as the society asked me, to substitute their dedication for adequate compensation.  And many do begin with that sense of dedication and belief that their dedication will be enough to overcome the economic disadvantage their profession creates for them.  However, many quickly discover that their beliefs are not enough when they’re working two jobs to make rent and student loan payments while paying for life’s expenses.  Unlike me, they can’t look forward to a time when that will change and they will become more economically privileged.  Even an English major like me can do the math.  The numbers are against them as they get priced out of housing and as they find that rising costs don’t match their often-stagnant salaries.  Rather than eventually finding economic stability, today’s educators become further estranged from it each year they remain in the profession.  Beginning teachers, especially, have more limited options than I did.  Typically, they can be in a relationship with someone else who earns a living wage, resign themselves to living with roommates, move into higher paying administrative work, or leave education to work where they are adequately compensated. 


We’ve always expected that new educators trade dedication for monetary reward.  That goes back to the earliest days of hiring teachers in the 1800s, when they were expected to stay in boarding rooms that their community provided.  What’s different, now, is that educators don’t have a pathway eventually to achieve economic stability.  Look in any housing market and see what the median teacher’s salary qualifies teachers to rent or purchase.  Look at teachers’ salaries and see how they have remained flat against the cost of living.  Look at the enormous debts with which teachers leave college.  Look and you’ll find that the opportunities I had two generations ago don’t exist for new educators. 


In an era when many equivalent professionals leave college earning $70k and more, the solution for this issue is simple.  States need to ensure that educators earn a living wage from the first day they are hired, just like employers in the private sector do.  Instead, the data suggest that the gap between teacher and comparable professions has gotten worse since “back in my time.”  There also need to be pathways for earning advancement that matches the earnings that educators need for their advancing lives.  I’m not suggesting a movement toward “market forces” and reward structures that “incentivize” the education profession.  These ideas don’t work in any social service employment because they always end up rewarding the most measurable and least important traits, skills, and activities.  If you put incentives, for example, on student testing results, you’ll ensure that educators focus on those tests; and educators who work in districts where testing skews against students will be disadvantaged.  Instead, it makes more sense for educators to have a salary structure that recognizes their growth and contributions to the profession.  For example, the stipends that teachers receive for extracurricular work (coaching, activities advising, etc.) are always pitiful reminders of the worth that educational institutions place on this work.  What would happen if educators were compensated for those activities on a pay scale that was comparable to professional wages for anyone else who’s required to have five or more years of education? 


By the way, if you think that a $70k starting wage seems awfully high, you may need to come to your own “back in my time” awareness.  The National Association of Colleges and Employers 2021 Summer Salary Survey of 77,180 bachelor’s degree graduates who completed their degrees in 2020 shows that the average salary for a bachelor’s-level graduate was $55,260, with many earning well above $70k.  According to data from the National Education Association, only the District of Columbia, where the average teacher’s starting salary is $56,313, pays above the overall national average salary for college graduates.  Twenty-three of the states start their teachers at below $40k annually.  If you started your work life in the 1970s, $35k was a lot of money.  Today, it isn’t.  In most regions, a $35k annual salary would mean you’re spending half or more of your take-home salary for housing costs or for daycare.  


Instead of coming up with schemes which ensure that educators have limited choices, how about, as their employers, we start investing in their futures like any good employer would?  I always find it interesting that some people who are angry with someone in public employment will resort to telling that person, “I pay your salary.”  When it comes time to discussing and committing to fair compensation for public employees, those ersatz bosses are nowhere to be found.  Instead of seeing how cheaply we can fund education, let’s do what any good business would do and see what the true costs to offer a living wage are and then raise the funds that will allow schools to attract and retain professionals.  We’ve believed the prevarications of certain people with agendas who tell us that public service, and education specifically, is filled with bloated and wasteful systems that are ineffective and inefficient.  I’d reply with what seems to be former Attorney General Bill Barr’s adjective of choice, but, instead, I’ll respond with a milder version:  Hogwash! 


Go into any school and look into its budget.  Then, after you’ve done your analysis, tell me where the waste is.  Let’s stop talking abstractly about this issue.  Really.  Budgets are publicly available.  Go find a school budget and analyze it and identify the waste.  I’ve spent an adult lifetime looking at and managing educational budgets, and I’ve not seen waste and bloat.  Schools are actually poorly resourced because of that misperception and our inability to assume responsibility for fully funding them.  You can see the impact of low funding in education’s biggest expenditure, salaries, which are typically between 80 to 90% of any total budget.  As you’re reviewing budgets, go look at the salary scale for any public school and tell me whether you think that’s an adequate compensation for someone who’s required to have the certifications educators have.  The artificially low wages paid to teachers, especially beginning teachers, is the way in which we’ve made our choice to poorly fund education work.  Those low salaries are because we choose to believe the myth of bloat and waste; and we elect school boards and legislators who also believe that myth, or they’re afraid to challenge it by allocating the needed funding.  As a result, educators and the schools that employ them bargain contracts that distribute meager and inadequate funds. 


If we’re going to have a stable and committed educational future workforce that can be blessed with a 40+ year career like I’ve had, we can’t rely on an anticipated dedication of a few educators to make the system work.  While that worked in the past, it no longer will.  We have an educational system that behaves like it’s still 1979.  The system that worked from “back in my time” isn’t possible anymore – even though we haven’t evolved to acknowledge that change.  In truth, though, it wasn’t adequate in 1979 since paying me poorly was as exploitative then as it is today.  I know that there are lots of folks who don’t believe that we need to spend more on education.  That’s how we got where we are.  But a nation that spends $750 billion on its military can find the money to fund its educational system adequately.  

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Did something happen to “us”?

A recent posting on someone’s Facebook feed contains a picture of the Woodstock music festival in August, 1969 along with a statement:


“Woodstock, 1969. People of all walks of life, color, religion, sexual beliefs. It’s hard to imagine this many people in one place sitting peacefully. What the hell happened to us?”


Since it's Woodstock anniversary time when folks are reminiscing about that event, I offer another perspective.  In brief, we really have let this myth go on for far too long.  Okay, a half-million people came together and had a relatively peaceful event.  But, come on, folks, let’s not confuse that event with any pervasive social harmony and peace that existed then and doesn’t exist now.  The Woodstock harmony is a myth that may seem nostalgically pleasant to imagine.  But like most myths, it’s fantasy.  Don’t believe me?  Take a trip back through the front page on the NY Times on the days of the Woodstock concert and you’ll see what was really happening in those days (the all caps are in the original). 


On that Friday, here are some headlines from the front page:


  • Enemy Drive May Affect Nixon Decision on Troops




  • Guerilla War Tactics Taught at Scarsdale High


On Saturday:



  • Dublin Calls Up Reserves As a Peace-Keeping Force



  • Marine Chief Vows to End Racial Rift

  • Red China Charges Soviet Is Mobilizing


On Sunday:




  • Refugees Gather at 2 Camps in Ireland

  • Survey Finds Public Concerned That Discipline in Schools Is Lax


And on Monday, as concert goers left:



  • U.S. Copter, Carrying 3, Downed in North Korea


  • Ulster Churchgoers Hear Two Views of the Trouble


  • Poor Nations Spend Fortune on Arms Purchases


You can argue that the gathering in upstate New York was the counterbalance to all that, and the gathering was the opposite energy to the strife that surrounded 1969.  And I won’t argue with you if you choose to believe in that fantasy, or any other fantasy, about the triumph of love and harmony.  But understand that it is a fantasy because the world didn’t stop during Woodstock and that muddy farm field didn’t become some magical moment that set the harmonious tone for a generation that’s been lost in more recent times.  Aside from the half million people frolicking and grooving to music at the festival, real people were living the conflicts, strife, and challenges of daily life.  The world was as disharmonious and chaotic as the world today.  Don’t believe me?  Go read the newspapers of the days during the festival.  And if you really believe that the festival brought all kinds of people together, get a photographer’s loupe and count the number of people with brown skin in any photos.  There were so few that you’ll be able to do that. 


During that time, I was in my late teens then as a politically active musician who when asked about my future plans would respond with something like, “I plan to eat, sleep, breathe, maybe take a walk.”  I understood “dropping out” from society because I lived that as a goal.  I eventually moved into a commune for a while and was attending and helping to manage outdoor music events (though nowhere near the grand scale of Woodstock).  I understand the forces that created Woodstock.  But I also understand how it’s become mythicized.  I can’t confuse that myth with what life was like in 1969, and I can’t long for a return to a mythical harmony that never existed.  Why is that important?  It seems to me that if we face the longstanding issues that we’ve been fighting, we will take a step toward change.  As long as we remain trapped in fantasies and myths, we can dream about regaining a past that never existed. 


If I were writing the description to a picture of the 1969 Woodstock festival, I’d write something more realistic like:


“Woodstock, 1969. Mostly White Youth Coming Together to Enjoy Music and Step Away from the Turmoil of the Times.”

Friday, July 1, 2022

Louis Armstrong, Myths, and the Rescue Narrative

There’s an article making the rounds on social media and carried by some news outlets that tells a story of how a Jewish family, the Karnofskys, adopted a young Louis Armstrong and started him on the path toward becoming the world-famous musician he later became.  Different versions of the story have the family housing young Louis in their home where the mother sang him to sleep with Jewish lullabies.  Other versions have them purchasing his first instrument for him because they saw his potential.  Yet others discuss how he was affectionately given a Yiddish nickname.  It all sounds very Disneyesque as the young child is helped by a struggling immigrant family who brings him into their home and treats him like an adopted child.  It’s a poignant story for the times (early 1900s) when both Jewish and Black people were so mistreated – especially in New Orleans where Mr. Armstrong spent his childhood.  The story has some truth, but it’s not true.  And it’s an example of why those touching stories your friends pass along may not be the best sources to cite.  It’s an even more significant example of how a false narrative that feeds misinformation can contribute to harmful generalities.


First some details about why it’s not a true story.  Louis Armstrong was a documentarian.  He kept extensive handwritten notes about his life.  The notes are in the rough language of someone with limited formal education, and they reflect his times.  But they are extensive and allow us to see, in his own words and from his perspective, what his life was like.  His handwritten notes are available at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, NY.  And there are transcribed versions of some of that material at the University of Chicago online archives.  He wrote an extensive comment about his experiences with the Karnofsky family.  You can read an excerpt at:


It’s tough to read some of what’s there because of the times it reflects.  His attitudes toward race, though common in his generation, sound strikingly painful today.  But the account is worth reading because it provides a more honest telling than the stories circulating online.  The relationship he describes with the Karnofskys is one of employee and employer.  He worked for them beginning at the age of seven (yes, seven – not uncommon in that era) working alongside the adults or older Karnofsky children.  Mrs. Karnofsky would provide him with a meal at the end of the day, after he’d been working from sunup; but then he went home to his mother and sister.  The Karnofskys treated him benevolently, and he learned the importance of working hard from them.  But when he decided to purchase a used, blackened cornet he saw in a store, they didn’t purchase it for him.  Mr. Karnofsky advanced him two dollars of the five he needed to purchase the horn.  It was a loan against his salary.  He paid back the loan and paid the other three dollars from money he had saved from his salary.  He admired the Karnofskys’ ability to work as a family and to work toward common goals – traits that he believed were lacking in the people in his own community.  But, no, he didn’t become an adopted member of the family.  They were his kindly employers, and no more than that.  They didn’t nickname him with a Yiddish moniker of “Satchmo” (a name he got later from a fellow musician who shortened it from “satchel mouth” – because he talked so much).  The Karnofskys were models to seven-year-old Louis Armstrong that he didn’t see anywhere else in the world he experienced to that point.  As a result, he had a fondness for them that he later extended to all Jewish people.  This is all documented in his own handwriting. 


So why do we so readily want to believe the story of a family rescuing young Louis Armstrong, and why does it continue to make the rounds, even after Snopes and other sources have debunked it?  We like stories where there is, at the heart of troubles, a happy twist of rescue.  The lost puppy finds home, the abandoned child finds a family, Little Orphan Annie finds a Daddy Warbucks benefactor.  Those stories make us feel okay about a world that can often seem otherwise cruel.  But there’s more to a story that involves a seven-year-old Black child who goes to work to help his family survive, especially if that child becomes wealthy and famous as an adult.  That real story is contrary to the more common myths about Black people.  After all, the common story society tells of Black children has been one of generational poverty in generational dysfunction.  Mr. Armstrong himself falls into that trap in his telling of the Black experience in his writing.  It’s painful to read his views of Black families in the link noted above. 


The dominant societal narrative is one of failure and distress for Black children.  And that narrative isn’t dependent on political perspectives.  Liberals believe it as strongly as conservatives do.  It is rooted in the perception that Black children grow up in poverty and they later live, as adults, in deprivation.  That was such a dominant theme that it drove much of social service policy and social science research from the Moynihan Report of the mid-1960s to the current day.  It stems from the belief that Black families and their children are flawed and deficient.  For them to do better, as the myth emphasizes, someone must rescue them.


So a mythical narrative gets created to explain Louis Armstrong.  It suggests that a generous immigrant family helped and nurtured him.  They taught him love and lullabies, and that gave him the start he needed to succeed.  Except that never happened.  While he talks about learning the importance of work and focus from the Karnofsky family, and while he admired them, it wasn’t their love that he took from his encounter.  At a very young age, he watched, learned, and adapted.  As he later played in a band with his idol, the bandleader King Oliver, or as he fronted his own bands, he understood what it meant to hone his skills through work and determination.  He learned how to work from the Karnofsky family, and he took that lesson with him for the rest of his life.  While he was clearly an originator on the trumpet whom players still imitate today, and while he was exceptionally talented, it was his work ethic that propelled him beyond being just a brilliant trumpet player.  His words tell us that was the value of his experiences with the Karnofskys.  His success didn’t come from some mythical nurturing and rescue.


Why is that an important distinction to make?  It’s important because seeing the truth of it leads you to a different understanding of the Black experience.  Louis Armstrong wasn’t rescued.  He found a model and then he adapted the model to his own needs.  He used the lessons he learned while working for the Karnofsky family to rise from the reform school where he was later sent to playing for queens and presidents as an adult.  That’s pretty amazing for a child who grew in the poverty that Mr. Armstrong describes in his writing.  And maybe that’s the story we should be passing around on social media.  It’s certainly more accurate.


And while we’re at it, maybe we should look at others who succeeded and see what really propelled them to success.  I think about this because of my great-grandfather who migrated to Texas after the Civil War.  By 1871, when he was 72, he owned his own ranch.  By the early 1900s, his sons owned extensive ranch and farm lands in two counties and had amassed significant wealth.  When my grandfather visited Galveston in the early 1900s, his arrival was often noted in the Black newspaper.  One article in Galveston’s The City Times (February 20, 1915, page 1) noted that he was the brother of another wealthy stockman while saying of him, “His wealth, it is thought, will reach the $100,000 mark” (just under $3 million today).  That was a remarkable change of fortunes for a family that a generation before would have been considered as property in many states.  Although that fortune was systematically stolen by the time the next generation arrived, their success, and that of many other Black families during that era and beyond, rarely gets told.  Those stories are not unique to my family.  There were many Black families who have a similar story in that era and all the way to today. 

It’s time to look at those stories and stop passing along myths that affirm a rescue narrative that isn’t truthful.  We’ve started to be aware of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” because of recent reporting; however, even that’s told as an anomaly.  It’s not.  When I’ve examined the many stories of Black success, whether then or now, I can see a pattern of striving toward achievement that is often thwarted by more powerful forces.  Rather than seeing familial dysfunction, I see attainment that fights against the odds because I know these other stories.  That’s why I’m always suspicious of narratives that promote the rescue storyline.  The truth, whether it’s about Mr. Armstrong, my family, or Black Wall Street, is much more powerful.