Students are More Than Numbers on Grave Stones

While driving to a hiking trail, I came across a cemetery for an old residential mental health facility, what they called an “insane asylum” at one point in our history. I am far from an expert on the history of mental health facilities in the United States, but one need not be an expert to know that some of the past practices in these institutions are not our proudest moments.  I do not know how to explain what I felt as I looked at the thousands of numbered and name-less grave stones. At least one source claims that there are over 100,000 such graves throughout the United States.

  • What went into the decisions to strip away any sign of the people’s identities in their graves, leaving only unidentified tombstones?
  • Was it because of a public stigma associated with being mentally ill and family not wanting affiliation with their deceased relatives?
  • Was it a cost-saving decision from a government institution?
  • Does it reflect the institution’s or society’s lack value for people with mental health challenges at certain times in our history?
  • Out of all the options for “cataloging” and identification, why numbers?

People are more than numbers, but what happens when we replace a person’s name with a number? Does it lead us to empathize less? Does it drive us to sterile and less human thoughts about them. Does it give us permission to treat them or think of them differently? Does it dehumanize them?

As one who spends his day grappling with the challenges and opportunities in education, I cannot help but apply this reflection to schools as well. Each person is more than a number. They are not just one of twenty thousand in a University or school district. They are more than their class rank, their scores on tests and standardized tests, and their assigned ID number to which their school records are associated. They are people with unique stories and distinct names. They matter.

The experience that I described above came from a government-run institution, and this is not something from a hundred years ago. This is part of our recent past. If we interviewed people in those institutions, they might explain their decisions in many ways:

A Lack of Funding

It does not take much money to commit oneself to the concept that every human life has value, and every person has inherent rights, is a unique gift to this world, and is capable of being a blessing to others. We can establish policies and practices informed by such convictions.

Protecting the Family

Some argue that part of this came from the social stigma associated with having a family member in need of such care. I do not presume to understand the deep and personal struggles of the people involved, but I find it hard to believe that every single family  who had a relative in that field of nameless graves felt this way. Could it be true that not a single family member wanted a name on the grave? Even if that were the case, were there not more humane and personalizing alternatives? Again, I do not know the details.


Some might argue that this is just policy and standard practice. This is what we were told to do so we did it. This is why I write so critically about policy. Policies are important and have their place, but every policy reflects beliefs and values. We must commit ourselves to polices in education that are truly focused upon the dignity, rights, and value of every single student; not just the students collectively, but each one individually.

When we face policies that clash with this core ideas, we must have the critical mind and courage to do something about them. We might find ourselves in a context where everyone else seems comfortable with the policy and we begin to question why we are the outlier, but ultimately, it is always dangerous to go against conscience. As a poster said in one of high school classrooms, “Stand up for what is right, even if you are standing alone.”

This is not easy, especially today when many people in education are more interested in the promotion of their values and ideas by power instead of a humble and open pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. We subtly or directly try to shut down those who have positions that do not align with our own, and we justify it by demonizing the other position. In some ways, that is not unlike assigning a number to people instead of giving them a real name and valuing them enough to hear and interact with them.

We must be candid about our values and be champions for the policies that reflect them. In the United States, we have founding documents that give us a rather solid starting point. Yet, even basic freedoms in our founding documents often do not seem to inform our policies and practices in some cases.

The Questions

  • How can we be champions for schools where no student feels or is treated like a number?
  • How do we make sure that students know that their worth does not depend upon the numbers assigned to them in this age of quantification?
  • How do we celebrate and nurture the lives and stories of learners, not just their ranks and ratings?
  • How can we make sure that our schools are deeply human and humane?
  • As the use of data an analytics becomes an ever-growing part of our lives and schools, how can we insist on practices and uses that amplify our core convictions?



Calling, Life Stories, Fears, and Learning

I do not usually get this personal on my blog, but something tells me that now is the time to share this story and struggle with you. What I am about to share with you is a story about calling, and I share it because I believe that stories, purpose, meaning, and calling are all important parts of our life and learning. When we stop thinking about these topics, education turns into something less interesting. It is in the absence of meaning, purpose, and calling for each learner that we start to see people use comparisons like school as a factory, school as a jail, or school as glorified babysitting. Or, we let it turn into a political battleground, a money tree, or a club that we can use to force our ideological opponents into submission. School can be so much more than that. It can be a place that helps young people learn about, shape, and live out their unique stories in life.

I believe that our lives are heavily influences by the stories that we live, learn, and tell ourselves, and I am going to tell you part of my story. This is not something that I share very often, but as you read it, I invite you to think about your own story and the story of the learners with whom you interact.

When I was twelve years old, only a week or two after our family moved to Laredo, Texas to be closer to some of my father’s new business clients, my life changed. It was one of our first days in this new home when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night. My father, suffering from a longstanding heart condition, needed immediate medical care. Within an hour, at less than fifty years old, my dad died of a massive heart attack, and I sat there, physically trembling as if I were sitting unclothed in an ice storm.

My dad was the definition of an entrepreneur: determined, driven, confident, quick to take responsibility for the outcome instead of blaming others, a bit stubborn but deeply curious, constantly looking for the third option when everyone else only saw two, unswerving amid risk, persuasive, and always ready to pick himself up after a failed effort. He also neglected his health, worked too many hours given his condition, and did not seem to listen to the advice of doctors.

Before my birth, my dad applied these same traits to a very different career as a Southern Baptist minister. He planted a church and worked long days in service to that church while also working a second job to make enough money to feed his family. My brother tells me that the elders of this church promised him a living wage once attendance at this church “startup” reached a viable number, but when that number came and passed, the elders changed their mind. My dad’s long work days were even longer, and it became increasingly difficult to feed and care for his growing family (a son and two daughters at the time). At one point my dad had enough. Bitter and burned out, he left the ministry, and headed into the business world, eventually becoming a broker, determined to never allow his family to be in want again. He delivered on that promise tenfold, but it caught up with him.

As an entrepreneur, my dad faced failures. He also celebrated plenty of financial wins and successes along the way. I do not know what happened to any of his assets at the time of death, but a modest life insurance policy provided my mother and me enough money to get by afterward (all of my siblings were grown and married by this time). Eventually, my mother married a widower who lost his wife around the same time that my dad died, and this man turned out to be an incredible anchor and mentor in my life. My stepfather, a farmer in Southern Illinois, lived a very different lifestyle than that to which I was accustomed. I soon learned to bail hay, shovel manure, load livestock, paint tin roofs of sheds and barns in one-hundred degree heat and almost equal humidity. I came to know my stepfather as a wise, compassionate, innovative, and incredibly hardworking man. He exemplifies a commitment to steady, focused, hard work in one direction for decades. He is a loyal family man, husband, father, and neighbor. He is the type of man who is quick to sacrifice for the needs of others. During his working years he showed no drive to change the world in some grand or global scale. For him, it was and is all about doing what is right, working hard, and caring for your family.

It probably became most apparent during my college years that I inherited a few traits and learned even more lessons from my dad.  Even with years of practice and effort, I do not know if I could muzzle the entrepreneurial drive that I saw in my father and I see in myself. However, most of my life, as much as I have incredible love and respect for my father, I found myself interpreting his life as a tragedy, a Hero’s Journey cut short, a little like Hercules dying in an unfortunate car accident on the way home from his fourth labor, never to finish the other six or the adventure.

If I am honest with you, I embraced this story as the defining narrative for much of my life, and it includes a series of lessons, ones that I do not necessarily suggest for others. I will mention some of them below and share how they shaped my past and present.

“You must keep that entrepreneurial spirit in check or it will be your undoing.”

Like my father, I am wired to look for the third way. The idea of being the first in the world to try something is stirring and inspiring, especially when it is something that I believe can have a positive impact in the world. Yet, I have spent my adult life in learning organizations because they have clear boundaries, are steeped in tradition, and they are slow to change. That is not the only reason, but I have begun to suspect that this is indeed one reason. As much as  I know that starting something new gives greater opportunity for some of my ideas to grow and flourish, I have admittedly kept that entrepreneurial drive in check by staying in safe and stable organizations that do not let me “take things too far.” This is rarely a conscious decision, but it is nonetheless something that I began to discover about myself.

This persistent tension is what shaped me into who I am and what I do today. Admittedly, I often wonder what would happen if I were to let loose of the restraints, venturing out on my own. However, unlike a true entrepreneur, I have a tragic story that keeps me from doing anything too “risky.” Ironically, some in education find it hard to imagine that I could become more risky or extreme in my ideas or actions. If only they knew.

“You must make sure that your family is taken care of financially in the case of your untimely death, but you must also be suspicious of wealth and its negative impact in your life.”

I spent a decade studying and learning about the role of entrepreneurship in education and, while I appreciate accountability and oversight, I celebrate the work of the educational entrepreneur. In fact, I suspect that some of the most important learning innovations will come from outside of the highly regulated confines of modern learning organizations. There are so many times when I want to found that next education startup, but I will confess a persistent fear of success that, too often, keeps me from taking the plunge.

A few times in my life, I received incredibly generous job offers. Taking any one of those jobs for ten years in my early adulthood could have set me up for spending the rest of my adult like taking some of those entrepreneurial risks without stress on my family. It took me a long time to realize that I was afraid of making too much money. It felt too similar to my father’s path.

“If you abandon or run away from your first calling, you will suffer an equal or worse outcome.”

There are many ways to look at my father’s story. You could see it as a story of a man who sacrificed his calling as a minister so that he could be faithful to the calling of a father and husband. You could also see it as a story of a man who abandoned his calling and experienced constant torment that affected all aspects of his life, eventually leading to his untimely death. You could also see it as the story of a man whose calling took him many directions, first as a minister, second as an entrepreneur, but it was a journey with a sudden and unexpected ending. Or you can just look at it as the story of a husband, father and friend who lived on his own terms while expressing a deep love for and loyalty to his family.

As much as I can intellectually see his story in different ways, I sometimes live in fear of running away from my callings. If I step out and take this risk, will it lead me down the same path as my father? It might seem foolish or unrealistic, but this is the fear that I sometimes find myself facing. I sometimes even risk undermining my own successes. If I do not reach some great success, then I do not have to face the difficult decisions, I reason to myself.

In fact, when I first graduated from college, I received two job offers on the same day. Not knowing what to do, I weighed the options. Then I chose the one that I wanted the least because I thought that would protect me from hubris. It did not, but I give myself a couple of points for a novel, albeit foolish, approach to decision-making.

Then there are two other stories that I have come to associate with my father and myself for one reason or another. On the one hand, there is the story of the prophet who ran away from his calling only to find himself in the belly of a great fish. This brought Jonah back to his calling, but what would have happened if he still kept running? Is that the story of my dad? Would that be my story if I uncaged the entrepreneurial side of my personality? How do I avoid living the same story? The other is The Parable of the Talents, namely the man who, afraid of the master, hid his talent instead of investing it. To that man, the master replied:

You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.

These stories conjure a persistent fear of not following my calling, wasting my gifts, and accordingly facing the earthly consequences. If such fears are not kept under control or overcome, they have a way of haunting a person. You are afraid to act and afraid to stand still, so you try to do a little of both. Some say that is certain pathway to mediocrity and perpetual discontent. Others say that it is a way of blending your passions, gifts, and interests; perhaps even preparing for some future but presently unknown adventure.

This is also probably part of why, throughout my life, I find myself working two or three jobs. When I worked on my doctorate, I had a full-time job in a Christian middle and high school, a 20-hour-per week graduate assistantship at the university, a part-time job at a church, and a part-time job at a college. Even today, I have a full-time leadership position that actually includes three distinct roles, maintain a teaching load, spend enough time on writing and related projects to count for a second full-time job, and I do other projects on top of that. Why? Part of it is because of my insatiable curiosity and love of learning. I enjoy all this. From another perspective, it might also be that I can feed the entrepreneurial spirit without giving in to it. I hold on to what I think is that “first calling” while embracing these other areas that sometimes feel like a “deep gladness” intersecting a “great hunger” in the world (ala Buechner).

This is part of my story. You have your own. So do each of the students in our schools. New events add to our stories each day, and they play a role in who we are and who we become. As I think about what I believe about education, reflecting on this very personal part of my own story reminds me about one of my core convictions when it comes to education. A good education is one that binds us together but also one that helps us go on a very personal journey, one that is unique to each of us.

Many students already come to school with stories very much like the one that I just shared with you: stories of loss and fear. Each day that a student is in school, that student is in the process of creating new parts of his or her life story.  These can be forgotten and ineffectual experiences. They can also be stories that inspire them, help them make sense of their lives, help them learn to persevere, empower them to discover and develop their gifts and abilities, help them tap into their passions, guide them on the path of discovering current and future callings, help them face and overcome their fears, and equip them for the challenges and opportunities of the future. School occupies too much of our lives to simply be about standards and tests even if that is what most people measure today. School is part of something much more significant, it is part of our life story.

You Teach and Learn With an Accent. Here is Why That Matters

I had an experience recently that reminded me of the fact that you and I teach and learn with an accent.

Wisconsin is my current home, but I am living in Connecticut for my semester sabbatical. We found a wonderfully welcoming church to attend during our time here. A couple of weeks ago, after the Sunday morning service, I was speaking with a woman who lived in New England most of her life. She proceeded to tell me how much she liked me talking during morning Bible study. I liked to think that she was referring to my great wisdom or something admirable like that, but she was not. She continued by explaining that my accept is so…cute (I think that was the word that she used). My immediate reaction, the one that I did not say out loud, was “I do not have an accent!” …especially not a Wisconsin accent. I mean, I grew up just outside of St. Louis. I say “don’t” not “do-unt.” I call it a “drinking fountain,” not a “bubbler.” I do not say “dem,” “dat,” “dis,” or “dere.” I do not call traffic lights “stop and go lights,” and when I travel to the northern part of the state, I definitely to not say that I am going “up Nort,” at least not seriously. As such, I do not have a Wisconsin accent. At least that is what I thought, but who am I to disagree with everyone in the state of Connecticut. They hear it so I have it. I have no doubt about it.

We are not very good at hearing our own accents. We live with them, and that familiarity makes it nearly impossible to notice. I like the way someone explained it on Quora, “We can’t hear our own accents, or even the way our voices sound to others, because we can only hear ourselves speak within the resonance chamber called our skulls.” If you read the response on that link by a New Zealander, it was only when that person got out of New Zealand, visited other places, and afterward heard the New Zealand accent of others anew that this person could hear the accent.

As I thought about this and read that post on Quora, I immediately resonated with idea. This is exactly what happens to us in education! We do not hear our own teaching and learning accents. We might think that we do, but we are still within the metaphorical “resonance chambers of our skulls.” I think of a few immediate implications for this.


This is just an illustration, not a proof, but it does remind me of the importance for feedback and accountability. Other people can hear and see things about me and my work that it is hard for me to see. They can give me valuable feedback that will allow me to grow and improve. Some might be afraid of what they hear, afraid of criticism or rejection, but if we can work through that fear, we are on the path to growth and improvement.

Exploring the Possibilities 

I write and talk about this one all the time, but in the example of the New Zealander, that person could not hear an accent until leaving, living around people with other accents, and then returning. There is similar value to broadly exploring the possibilities for teaching and learning. It is why I often encourage people to read widely, talk to others who do things differently in education, and if at all possibly, go see for yourself (even if it is just watching video clips of what is happening in other places). I do not suggest this as some sort of brainwashing or conversion strategy. It is because this sort of exercise allows us to see what we are doing in education in a different light, plus there is so much that we can learn from others.

There is no expectation or obligation to change our accent. We just get a chance to learn about others, come to rediscover our own, and then we can decide what to do next.

Humility and Moving Beyond Assumptions

This allows us to move beyond hearsay and assumptions about ourselves and others. We make constant judgement about our own practices and those of others. We define our practice as rigorous, relational, compassionate, academic, proper, and any other number of descriptors. Sometimes we come to believe that our approach and practice equals one of those words.

“If you want to be compassionate, then you must ______________.”

“If you are committed to academic rigor, then _______ is a critical practice.”

“Educators who care about students always __________.”

“Good schools _________________ students.”

We make these judgement all the time, and some of them hold up even after exploring the breadth of practices and possibilities. Others do not. I firmly believe that there are some absolutes and many other near absolutes when it comes to quality teaching and learning, but by exploring the breadth of possibilities, becoming increasingly aware of my accent and how it differs from those of others, I also appreciate that there are flaws with many of my judgement and assumptions.

We Need More of This

We need more of this in education. Otherwise we are constantly critiquing one another without learning from it. We are missing out on some incredible learning opportunities. We are losing the chance to discover promising ideas and practices for teaching and learning that align closely with our core convictions. We are losing the chance to value the work of others and to develop an even clearer understanding of that which really matters in education.

That is why I do what I do. I firmly believe in this process. That is why I observe, interview, read, and learn from countless methods and philosophies in education. Comparative education studies is one way that people get at this by examining education practices from around the world. The same tools are valuable within a given country or system. I call it comparative methodology studies, examining the practices, affordances, and limitations of these practices; learning to hear the different accents in the field.

Can We Use the Case of Public Parks to Critique the Logic of School Choice?

Can we use the case of public parks to critique the logic behind school choice? Some think so. Voltaire is quoted as saying, “A witty saying proves nothing.” That is the quote that came to mind when I saw someone post the following on Twitter recently:

What do you think? Some might read it and join in a resounding cheer for this witty statement about some people’s belief that school choice is “ridiculous” on the same grounds as the fictional public park statement. The problem is that this is not really an argument against school choice. When we use such comparisons, they can be clever and stick with people, but we must also ask whether they are inviting us into a candid and substantive consideration of the true affordances and limitations of school choice, and there are indeed both.

Yes, the example with the parks does sound a bit ridiculous, but it only takes a few moments of listing the similarities and differences between public parks and public schools to recognize that this comparison comes rather close to what some might call ridiculous.

If we are going to work with the park comparison, allow me to offer a few thoughts.

  1. It is mandatory for people of a certain age to attend school, but not so with parks.
  2. When a park is unsafe, you don’t have to go to it. When you are in a community with an unsafe school and it is your only option, you are still required by law to attend (unless of course you are wealthy enough for the private school or can afford to have a parent stay home to homeschool).
  3. What would you say to a person who is told that it is un-Amercian to not send their kid to an unsafe park every day, arguing that you should send your kid to that park while fighting to make it safer? If your child is harmed during that time, we can chalk that up your American duty. Yet, those with the money and time to travel further for a safe park are insulated from this same “American duty.”
  4. My point is that we don’t force people to go to parks and then improve them. We improve parks and then people start going to them.
  5. When a park is poor in quality, people vote by not going to it. If there are better options, they take advantage of those choices. My family does that all the time. We used to go a little further to the park with the best playground, the bets hiking, or whatever else aligned with our goals. Note that quality also wasn’t a simple measure on some standardized test of park quality either. We made a choice based upon our goals and values and what the park could offer.
  6. Your kid loves skateboarding and the closest park doesn’t allow or have room for skateboard. Yet, there is a great skateboard park about a mile away so you opt to help your kid go there instead.
  7. Now imagine a local park where the officials decided that it was a public health essential that parks include “how to” posters related to the park official’s viewpoint on certain political and hot social issues, and much more. Maybe you agree with those positions and maybe you do not, but you don’t have to go to that park. Mandatory daily attendance at the park does not exist, so you can opt to play or walk somewhere else if somewhere else is available. If not, you can fight to change that park, but if those in charge reject your complaint, that is it. Not only that but imagine the park officials ridiculing your complaint as being too liberal, too conservative, closed-minded, backward, socialist or something else. There is limited actual openness to a substantive debate about what goes into the park.
  8. If there are park officials on duty who are not the type of role model that you want for your children, you express concern, and your concerns are disregarded, what next? Those park officials might rank about the importance of legalizing marijuana, locking our borders to illegal immigrants, making oil illegal, or some other position. That is not their primary job as park officials but their ideas quite often come out in subtle and direct ways. Again you express concern but the park board and park administration supports the park official.

I’m not saying that these are always issues for people, but the simple public park to public school comparison make in the above poster does not help to surface such important candid discussion. Or, since I’m writing this as a response, maybe it does.