The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan – Episode 6: Opting In or Opting Out

Action, attitude, atmosphere. Those three word put in that order are not an original thought. I think I first heard about them from a guy named Rob Bell and while he can explain the context in which you would want to think about these three terms much more eloquently that I can, I don’t have his email address to ask him to explain for you, so you’re stuck with me.

From what I remember, he explained it this way. There are three levels of communication. Or more specifically, there are three demands that your communication can make. The first is to drive someone into action. Surprise, surprise that is the action level. I need you to do this thing or create a blank to do blank. That level of communication is based on what we want someone to physically be doing. A teacher might say to a student sit down or read this or solve this equation. There is inherently a level of compliance in action communication. The expectations are usually pretty clearly stated based on the directive given, run this program and have kids do this many articles a week. There is nothing wrong with action communication but it does have limitations to what can reasonably be expected by both parties, the communicator and the one receiving the directive.

If communication around action is telling someone what to do, attitude communication is telling someone how to think or better yet some guardrails about how to think about a situation. This level gives space for variants of action based on the interpretation of the suggested attitudes. Here is an example to differentiate the two. If I want to lower the suspension rate I can tell you to stop suspending kids for certain offenses (action). If I want to lower the suspension rate I can tell you that suspensions hurt kids more than they help us. Ill have to tell you that over and over until you believe it, but the resultant affect would be based on the individual’s actions being shaped by the attitude that suspensions hurt kids and don’t help adults.

Atmosphere goes one step higher and if I want to lower the suspension rate I could tell you over and over that when someone is harmed the best course of action is to repair the harm and drawing the student that caused the harm back into the community is more important to school culture than figuring out a consequence. I would probably have to do more than just tell you that same thing repeatedly. I might have to engage you in a story about why an idea is true or provide you with some type of data to show that a different series of attitudes are necessary. I would lead you down the path and at some point let you make your own conclusions. It’s different than attitude because you can make your own opinion on suspensions and whether or not they are useful. Then whatever attitude you come up with will have various actions that support your attitudes around handling of behavior. It’s a bigger idea that gets at the same outcome, but in a slightly different way. The guardrails are wide instead of narrow.

I like attitude and atmosphere type conversations because I think it is more important to help shape someones thoughts on a topic rather than tell them what to do with a topic. Way more than ever I am hearing people asking the question what do I do to help in reference to racial reconciliation. More than ever I have no response. When we are talking about equitable outcomes in education we can’t talk about what to do without setting up the atmosphere which will give structure to the attitudes that will inevitably have to be changed. That is what episode 1 was all about, The Story We Find Ourselves In, is the atmosphere level that our attitudes are going to be shaped by. Most of what followed and what will follow is going to be at the attitude level with very few actionable items. That’s intentional, because, again, it doesn’t matter a ton what we all end up doing in the new normal, if we don’t all think a different way.

So let’s go practical. We are going to have programs or resources available to families that need them. Let’s take access to technology, like a Chromebook. We can come up with a system for figuring out who wants a Chromebook and who doesn’t. We can send out phone masters and emails and ask people to opt in to coming and picking up a device. That is going to work for a decent amount of the families. But what about the families we don’t think it’s going to work out for? Is there a subset of families that we know are not going to opt in?

This leads us to the atmosphere level question. Do we treat every kid the same? Is there a subset of the student population that we have to account for in our design of distribution of access. No matter how many emails and phone calls go out, we know there is a group of students and families that are not going to come and pick up their devices at a specified time. 4 – 6 on a Tuesday and 10 – 2 on Thursday isn’t going to be enough. The thing is, we probably would be able to guess which families are going to struggle to make it in during those times and which ones won’t. Maybe another way to ask the same question is how should we feel about a family that realizes too late that they want to opt in? Or How do we design our technology roll out to not force certain families to opt in? or What is more equitable opting in or opting out?

So do we treat every student the same? Clearly the answer to that is no, we make modifications for those who need them. Here is another example from this past school year. Free and reduced lunch forms. I don’t know that we did a great job with this, and we are planning on rethinking it a little more for this year depending on how things shake out with Coronavirus. Before a student graduates they are supposed to pay their school fees. That seems fair and appropriate. The money owed is almost always for something legitimate. Maybe they lost an English text book in 7th grade or cracked a screen on an iPad way back when, whatever the case, something happened and they owed money for it. The other way you can accumulate fees is by not paying the yearly school fee amount that everyone pays. You can avoid paying that fee if you fill out the paperwork for free and reduced lunch. You would not believe the number of students we had that owed yearly fees from previous years or owed the fee for this year, but clearly would qualify for a portion or all of those fees to be waived. This is where we could have done better. We could have checked to see which students filled out the form and which ones hadn’t. Instead of forcing people to opt in, we could have had a system of checks and balances so we are essentially having some families opt out.

Atmosphere: Do we treat all kid the same? What does persevering even when a lack of home support exists mean in virtual school?

Attitude: What is more equitable forcing someone to opt in or forcing someone to opt out? How will think about the student that asks for a device two weeks later or the family that fills out the free and reduced lunch form on June 3rd? Do we judge them or judge ourselves for not thinking of their needs ahead of time?

Action: Have everyone fill out the free and reduced lunch form regardless of income level. Check to make sure students that you know could benefit from filling out the form actually did.

If there are kids and families that do not typically opt in to things that would benefit them, then we go an extra step to                      ensure their participation is included.

That doesn’t mean that we blindly act or that any decision around equity and opting in or opting out is done in one specific way. It is just filter we use to make a decision about how we expect someone to interact with the thing we are asking of them.

Why we don’t treat all kids the same.

We don’t treat all kids the same because ease of access is different for all students. I have been waiting to tell this story because, to me, it is the proof that we should not treat everyone the same. Next door to us lived a woman, a beautifully kind woman. Her name is Maggie (it’s actually not and you can hear more about Ms. Maggie here). Currently she is in her 90’s and is one of the members of the group of my elderly neighbors that had lived there before the highway was put in. There is a plant, my wife could tell you what kind, in front of her porch that was transplanted from the yard of her across the street neighbor, when she still had one (now there is no neighbor across the street, just the highway). This would have been in the early to mid 60’s. By the way, if you have a plant for 60 years, you are a special individual. Plants are a lot like kids. They grow whether you obsess over their growth or just let it ride. We planted a cherry tree in our back yard about a year after we moved in. A dozen years later the thing produces more cherries than we could possibly ever want. Our vacation schedule is modified each year to make sure we are home to pick cherries. My wife, Meg, will make cherry scones and cherry turnovers and cherry pies. This year, she made a couple of combinations of cherry jam.

Ms. Maggie’s husband died in the 90’s long before we moved here in 2006. I was helping her with her air conditioner or we were sitting on the porch talking and I asked her about the upper porch, A feature in a lot of the duplexes in my neighborhood is a double decker porch. The roof of the porch is flat and when finished off gives the person on the second story access to their own porch space. She told me that she hadn’t been on the second story porch since her husband passed. She was a nurses aid and he had worked in a manufacturing, I believe. Their careers had allowed her a stable income during the last third of her life.

Usually mobility and turnover in a property isn’t a good thing. However, if it is a family house it just means you get to meet more members of the family. Her son lived in the downstairs for a stint until he passed away. Before that was a friend of the family and before that was a niece, if my memory is right, and before that was her daughter. Her daughter passed away around 2008 or 2009.

Around here people die. I know they die everywhere but here it’s different. I’m not good with particulars sometimes, Meg is much better, but I know she died from something that was treatable. A guy named Robert had the same thing happen to him and actually now that I think about it, her other son also passed away from something treatable.

If you have ever looked at life expectancy data, you would be shocked to find out if you are White you are expected to live almost 5 years longer than if you are Black (if you were born between 1980 and 1990 like me). Fortunately or unfortunately, I get it. I’ve known three people that have died from something they didn’t have to die from. The old version of me, would have scoffed at that statistic, thinking something wrong with the data. It’s much harder to ignore facts about racial disparities when you are watching them play out all around you.

My neighbors daughter that passed away back in 08 or 09 had two daughters. One is about my age and was an adult at the time. The other was in middle or early high school. When her mother died, my neighbors granddaughter, moved upstairs with her grandmother. Before that happened (and after), the granddaughter come over and get help with Math. My memory of those years is a little disjointed, but I think I tutored her for three years. Two things were obvious to me from an educational lens. She was behind where she needed to be in terms of mathematical content knowledge and the small, private christian school she was attending was doing little to fix that. The first clue was that the math classes she took were out of order, it seemed like she was taking Algebra 2 and Algebra 1 at the same time. The homework assigned rarely made logical progressional sense. The feedback she received seemed useless and random. She struggled to finish school, but was obviously trying really hard. In the end, she graduated.

I care about marketable skill attainment, because I think it is just the next iteration of the middle class narrative that existed when her grandfather was working. In the 60’s you could leave high school and go to work. You can still leave high school today and go to work, it’s just that the work is now more specialized. I’m guessing it’s not necessarily harder work, it is just harder to access or is harder to access for one subset of the population. Is being a phlebotomist harder than working in a factory? Probably not, but the access to that career hinges on additional schooling, schooling that seems unobtainable to many. I am telling you this story, because in 2013 my neighbors granddaughter gave birth to a son about a month after my wife gave birth to ours. By the way, I am being super vague about names on purpose because I care about these people and it’s hard to talk about inequities in a way that doesn’t seem condescending. It’s hard to not come across as condescending because the things that are so hard for her are really easy for me, but I don’t think it is her fault or any one person’s fault. Certainly, it is no indictment on her character. She got dealt pocket twos where many of the people that look like me got pocket aces when it comes to ease of access to education that produces marketable skill acquisition. That’s the hard thing to explain to people. Here is a girl that doesn’t process math as quickly as someone else. She was at a school that graduated her but didn’t help compensate for her processing difficulties. Her mom died when she was in middle or early high school. She grew up in poverty and lived with her grandmother. If her and I had swapped places, I don’t think I would be any better or worse off than she is. And now we have two boys a month apart in age, but light years apart in ease of access to marketable skills.

My neighbors granddaughter moved out of her grandmothers house about two years ago. She actually moved to the district I work in and lives sort of near the school I work at. I am scared for the educational outcomes for that boy. I know there is already an achievement gap between her son and mine. He was receiving individualized instruction in speech while my son was learning how to count in Spanish. Their reading abilities are already multiple years apart. Having spent years in education, I know we tend to favor the kid that does well in school. They are easy. I also know that kids that struggle academically are more likely to be disengaged with learning and sometimes that disengagement manifests itself in goofing around. I am scared for when he acts out in class and his mom is called. I am scared of how she is going to be judged by her son’s teachers. It’s going to happen. They are going to see her and think she is a bad mom, when there is nothing farther from the truth. I know, because before living here I would have thought the same thing. I would have written her off as something, I’m not even sure what, but it would have been terrible. And, because of my own racist bias I would have justified my not persevering in helping that boy fulfill his unmet potential. By the time he would have gotten to me as a high schooler, she would have been so sick and tired of phone calls and complaints about behavior and demands from his teachers that she would struggle to meet. I am scared for the way he and her are going to be treated, something I never have to think about for my own son or myself.

We have created a dynamic in education where kids are allowed to choose if they opt in. If we make kids opt in, the corollary is that they can opt out. In our system and systems of education all over the country, kids are allowed to opt out. They are allowed to opt out and when they do (I should do a whole episode on how to drop out of high school because I have rarely if ever seen anyone just stop showing up cold turkey or declare they are dropping out. It’s usually a slow spiral or like when you are watching a sunset, you can see it less and less and then all of the sudden it’s gone.) they leave us with little to no access to marketable skills. A kid shouldn’t be able to opt out without us doing everything we can to persevere in making sure they don’t opt out.

Atmosphere: We don’t treat all kids the same because some will require us to persevere in helping them obtain ease of access to marketable skills.

We need to persevere because not all students and families understand how it can change their lives. Expecting a child that is weary and tired of going to school to have the wherewith-all to know how life changing another year and a half or two years of school could be for the trajectory of their lives is ludicrous if we have have never explained the value added to them and I don’t mean saying it once and then washing our hands of the situation. Perseverance requires us to try over and over and when we think he hit the end of our options, we start over.

Atmosphere: In the 4 year graduation cohort for the graduating class of 2019 (kids that started 9th grade 4 years prior and were seniors during the spring of 2019) 29% of Black seniors in Wisconsin opted out of finishing high school. During the same time period only 7% of white students opted out.

Attitude: This is where some will diverge. Some will blame the kid or family for opting out. Some will blame educators for not doing their job and some will say this isn’t ok and maybe there are a series of attitudes that need to changed along the way to put things back to how they should be, a system that provides equitable ease of access to marketable skill acquisition through public education.

Action: Totally up to you.