To My Teacher Friends: You’re Worthy

An outstanding teacher friend of mine went to an educator’s conference not that long ago and the presenter said, “If you aren’t doing (insert educational practice being pitched), you are committing educational malpractice.” My friend was a little taken aback. He’s a great teacher and here was an “expert” telling him that he was doing harm to his students.

A while back I wrote an article entitled “There is no silver bullet for education reform.” (   It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that schools are always hoping to find “the thing” that is going to “fix” our system. I actually think this desire comes with good intentions.   Administrators, teachers, and even “school reformers” want “results.” Of course, there is often little agreement on what “results” we should be striving for. Nevertheless, schools are constantly implementing new strategies and initiatives in order to “fix” our schools. If only it were that easy. There truly isn’t a “magic bullet” that will solve every challenge or meet the diverse needs of every school or every learner.

Among the consequences of this search for the latest and greatest in educational strategies is that teachers are feeling beaten down. How would it feel to have someone tell you that you are committing “malpractice” in your field?   I think teachers feel that they are being told they aren’t good enough a lot these days. Whether it comes from well-intentioned school leaders with a new initiative or legislators saying that our schools aren’t doing their jobs, teachers are feeling a lot of stress these days.

Here’s what I think; teachers are incredible. In a world of rapidly changing challenges, continually diminishing resources, salaries that don’t keep up with other professions, and an understanding that our work is critical for the future of our students, teachers are doing amazing things.   I have the great privilege of having a job where I get to support and observe teachers in all types of settings. I was in a kindergarten room the other day where a group of students were working in small groups to solve a problem involving moving water with just a few tools.   It was awesome to watch these young children working collaboratively to come up with a solution.   It wasn’t a matter of chance that they knew how to work as a team; they had been taught how to work together by a master teacher. I was in a special education room recently when a student had an outburst of frustration while trying to complete a task. The teacher immediately took the students hand, calmed her down, and helped her to finish the task at hand. I was awed by kindness and patience of the teacher. I was in a high school band room the other day where the students were playing professional level band music at an incredible level.   They were making very complex musical decisions in real time with each other.

So, if you’re a teacher who is doing all they can to be better every day, if you’re a teacher who wants their students to be better every day, and if you’re a teacher who wants their school to be better every day, you’re good enough.   While it is important to stay on top of the latest school improvement initiatives and to read the latest and greatest articles about teaching, it is also important to be the judge of what is best for your classroom.   No one knows their own situation better than a teacher in their own classroom. Don’t be afraid to try something new and make a mistake every now and then. Know that there isn’t a strategy in the world that works in every situation or for every student.

January and February are tough months for teachers. The students show up with every possible illness, we arrive in the dark and leave in the dark many days, there isn’t a break in our near future, there are papers and tests to grade, and there are meetings, so many meetings.   Please know that you are good enough and most importantly your students need you.


From Helping Kids to Enabling Grifters

(This blog is dedicated to David Twombley who was always encouraged my writing)

Imagine going to work for the United States Department of Education.   I know a couple people who have worked there and a couple who still work there.   They went there with hopes of connecting students to resources that would help them grow.   They went there with the hopes of insuring that our most vulnerable students had access to the same quality of learning as our most affluent. Like almost all of us go into education, they got into it to make schools better.

In what is probably the least shocking news in recent memory, a study shows that morale at the U.S. Department of Education is down 12.4% ( over the last two years. Now, imagine going to work for the Department of Education after the President appoints a person who has never taught in a public school, who has never attended a public school, who has never sent her children to a public school, and who has made it her life’s mission to divert resources away from public schools to be your boss.   It doesn’t take much imagination to assume that working at the U.S. Department of Education has to be pretty miserable these days.

While working for a Billionaire who doesn’t know anything about public education has to be part of what makes jobs at the Department of Education depressing, it seems to me that the really horrible part has to be that the job has to be going from working to help students and teachers to actively enabling grifters (, taking away protections for our most vulnerable students (, and making colleges less safe (, . That’s the work of your Department of Education these days.

It should be shocking that Betsy DeVos devotes no notable time or energy from her bully pulpit to support public school students or teachers, and yet it really isn’t that shocking.   She sees her role as a protector of the privileged.   For those who went to work in the Department of Education to make schools better, going to work each day in service of wealthy grifters hoping to put some tax dollars in their own pockets has be demoralizing.

I promise that educators often don’t have a great deal of love for the Department of Education.   Our interactions with them are often in the form of red tape to be filled out or “report cards” of our schools based on narrow slices of standardized test results and other random statistics. And yet, I never doubted that they were trying to do something to make public schools better (even if I disagreed with how they were going about it).   It’s a whole new world now.   We have a Secretary of Education who is openly hostile to our public schools and who has shown no interest in looking out for the students who need public schools the most.

What Betsy DeVos is doing to Department of Education is shameful. Two years ago I begged Senator Chuck Grassley to vote no at her confirmation hearings (   At the time my biggest concern was her role in the failure of education policy in her home state of Michigan.   She was clearly unqualified for this job and she had used her considerable fortune to influence years of bad education policy. It turns out that she is much worse at this job than I had imagined. What has happened at the Department of Education for the last two years should be an embarrassment for Senator Grassley and the other 49 senators who voted to approve her nomination.

President Trump and the 50 senators who voted to confirm Ms. DeVos have done a disservice to taxpayers and most importantly to the students who trust the Department of Education to have their backs.   My heart goes out to the hard working men and women at the Department of Education who really want to have their backs, but are stuck working for someone who doesn’t.   Working in the field of education is a privilege and a pretty sacred trust. It is beyond sad that the person in Ms. Devos’s seat is abusing that privilege and trust day after day.

A Letter to Moderate/Independent Voters

Dear Moderate and Independent Voters,

Hi, I’m an Iowa teacher. My family moved to Iowa when I was four years old because of the state’s reputation as a leader in education. Education didn’t used to be a partisan issue in Iowa. Leaders from both parties did all they could to provide resources and support to Iowa’s public schools.   It can no longer be said that education is a non-partisan issue. I’m not sure why that is and it really doesn’t matter at this point.

I always considered myself a politically moderate guy, but I suppose that ship has also sailed. I would surely be labeled by most as the dreaded “L word”. My father was always proud to be identified as a liberal, so in his spirit I’ll admit to you that, while it may be out of fashion to admit it, I’m a big old liberal teddy bear.  It only seems fair to be honest with you.

For three years I have been writing about schools and politics and, if I were to be honest, I have probably been spitting into the wind. During the last three years the Iowa legislature has increased school funding at record-setting low levels (1% for FY 2019 after setting it at 1.1% in FY 2018). Iowa legislators also gutted Collective Bargaining in Iowa for public school teachers. That means that my colleagues and I can’t bargain for anything other than salary with our school boards.   Governor Ray instituted Collective Bargaining for Iowa’s workers in the mid-1970’s after years of study. Iowa’s Republican legislators took it away in the course of 48 hours at the statehouse.   In addition, it is becoming increasing clear that Iowa’s Republican lawmakers wish to divert more public dollars to private schools. Taxpayer contributions to private schools has grown 53% in the last ten years ( It is also clear to those who are paying attention that Iowa’s Republican leaders are ready to radically change Iowa’s public employee’s pension fund known as IPERS against our wishes.

So, I guess it’s safe to say that I am frustrated.   In no universe could you read the above data and conclude that Iowa’s Republican leaders are doing all they can for public schools. Yet their campaign ads say that they are pro-public education (except for the ads with scary music and fuzzy pictures of Democrats meant to scare you about these dangerous community leaders). Yeah, I’m frustrated because some of you must believe what these candidates are selling. I know that I’m not going to change the minds of hard-core Republican voters and I don’t need to convince my fellow wild-eyed liberal friends. So, I want to appeal to my moderate and independent friends.

In an era when transportation costs, insurance costs, and technology costs are rising so rapidly, how can 1% growth in our school’s budgets be enough? How can we devote more dollars to private schools when we are told that our state budget can’t stand more spending on our public schools? Why is it so important for Republican legislators to take away bargaining rights and mess with teacher pensions?

Teachers across the country are becoming increasingly frustrated. I encourage you to read about what teachers in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have had to do to be heard.   Iowa’s teachers don’t want to have storm our capitol or strike in order to be help our schools. We are hopeful that our neighbors will have our backs a little bit on November 6th.   When I watch Republican ads I am reminded of my grandmother who often said, “that dog won’t hunt.” I hope that dog doesn’t hunt this fall. The women and men who teach your sons and daughters are asking you a favor, please consider us and them when you go to the polls on November 6th.   Please?


Patrick Kearney

Iowa Teacher (29 years in the business)

You Say Tomato, I Say We Should Make Our Public Schools a Priority

I spend more on tomatoes than at any other time in my life. If the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is to be believed, I am spending 42.04% more on tomatoes than I did in 2000 ( The thing is, I don’t go around bragging about how much I spend on tomatoes, it just happens to cost more to buy tomatoes today than it used to. I’m not a tomato expert, so I’m not exactly sure why tomatoes cost more now than they used to. I assume that it costs more to produce, distribute, and market the tomatoes than it used to.   If the truth is to be told, I don’t really like tomatoes that much, but I’m still spending more than ever on tomatoes.

Governor Reynolds and Republican legislators in Iowa are fond of saying that we are spending more on education than at any other time in history.   I can tell you that they are telling the truth. That doesn’t mean that are doing all they can to support public education in our state.   Less than two years ago Republican lawmakers stripped public school teachers of our bargaining rights.   For the last two years lawmakers have chosen to increase spending on K-12 public education at a rate of just over 1%, while slashing funding to our state’s post secondary institutions.   It is also clear that Republican lawmakers are eager to dismantle IPERS and steer more public dollars towards private and charter schools.

The fact is that it costs more to keep our schools open each and every year. Much like the tomato farmer, most of the costs associated with what we do are out of our control. The increasing costs of transportation, heating and cooling, health care, technology, textbooks, and many other operational expenses far exceed the 1% increase that the legislature has appropriated for K-12 education. The result is that Iowa’s schools are seeing increased class sizes and cuts in programming such as fine arts and industrial technology.

When Iowa’s lawmakers tell you that education funding is stretching the state’s purse strings, it is critical to note that they are in control of what goes into the purse. A state’s budget is really a reflection of what we prioritize. If the last two years of Republican control of the statehouse and governor’s mansion has taught us anything it is that their priority is to put money in the pockets of Iowa’s wealthiest people and businesses.   As an example business tax credits in Iowa are projected to increase from $202 million in 2011 to over $302 million in 2021 ( That is creating a shift in priorities from public services to private pockets.

Other states have followed this playbook in recent years. Kansas is an outstanding example of a state that attempted to implement massive tax cuts and make giant cuts to public spending ( It failed.   Our governor and Republican legislators know that it failed and yet they continue to follow the playbook. It will take Kansas years to recover from those failed policies. Iowa cannot afford two more years of the Kansas playbook being implemented.

Education may not be the issue that drives you to the polls and I get that, but don’t go to the polls this November under the belief that Iowa’s Republican legislators are doing all they can for our public schools. You say tomato and I say, well I say tomato too. No one says ToMAHto.   I say Republicans are underfunding Iowa’s schools because that’s what is happening.   Don’t be fooled into believing there is another way to look at it.

Dear Secretary DeVos (Guns…really?)

Dear Secretary DeVos,

It’s the first days of school here in Iowa. I had the privilege of spending the first day of school in an amazing elementary school in my district. As I held open the door for the students there were tears (mostly from the parents as they waved goodbye), there was laughter, but mostly there was anticipation. You could feel the excitement from the students, parents, and staff as everyone headed to their rooms to get the year started. Within minutes of the bell ringing I saw classrooms full of students drawing, writing, reading, and even dancing.   Every teacher knows that you only get one chance to set the tone for the school year and the staff I observed was taking full advantage of that opportunity.   Those young people were fired up to be at school.

As someone who follows what you are up to pretty closely I was curious what message you might send to the teachers and students of our country as the school year starts.   To be frank, my expectations were pretty low. As someone who has never taught, attended, or really spent much time in our public schools, I’m not sure that you have much of a sense of what the start of the school year is about, but I was curious nonetheless. Well, I have to admit, you managed to shock me. Guns. The news you generated at the start of the school year was about guns (

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked anymore. Your agenda has been to shift public dollars to for-profit charter schools, rescind the rights of our most vulnerable young people (, and take away protections for students who are defrauded by for-profit colleges ( And yet I was genuinely shocked when I read that you wanted to use federal funding to purchase guns for teachers.

The thing is, no one thinks this is a good idea. OK, the NRA and gun manufacturers (I and the same) think it’s a good idea, but teachers, parents, law enforcement officers, even congress think it’s a bad idea.   As a matter of fact, congress recently passed a $50 million school safety bill that expressly prohibited the use of money for firearms.   The funds that you are considering using to buy guns out of (the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants) were authorized to support young people in one of three goals: providing a well-rounded education, improving school conditions for learning, and improving the use of technology for digital literacy. Those are worthy goals. To use those dollars to arm teachers is beyond ridiculous.

School safety is incredibly important. Since you’ve spent virtually no time in public schools it is possible you aren’t aware that among the things that happens during the first days of school are teacher trainings for a variety of dangerous situations.   Every teacher has thought about how they would protect their students in these situations and evidence from numerous school shootings would suggest that teachers have no problem putting themselves between a dangerous individual and their students.   With that being said, there isn’t enough training possible to make arming them a good idea.

Here is what I know…there is a mentally unstable person not far from every school in America who has easy access to a firearm.   I also know that congress will do nothing to change that. Schools are doing all they can to create a safe environment for students and staff, but as long as it is easy for troubled people to get guns there will be school shootings.

Betsy (can I call you Betsy?), I swear to goodness I would like nothing more than to read a headline that said, “Secretary DeVos calls for increased support for the arts,” or “Secretary DeVos stands up for vulnerable public school students,” but that isn’t going to happen is it? The thing is, this is what I knew would happen. In December of 2016 I begged my Senator to vote against your nomination ( because I knew that you would be a shill for those seeking to make a buck off of public education. What I couldn’t have imagined then was that among the charter school and for-profit college fat cats you would include gun manufacturers among those that you would help profit off of our schools.

I can’t think of a cabinet secretary in my memory that our country has had lower expectations for. You have no background as an educator, you have no experience with public schools, and your only qualification is that you used your wealth to meddle (unsuccessfully) with schools in Michigan, and yet you have crawled under the low bar once again.   As a notable politician might tweet… SAD.

It seems unlikely that you’ll be able to pull off getting this money into the hands of gun manufacturers, but that’s not really the point. Your role should be to set the agenda for conversations about our schools. The Secretary of Education should seek to empower schools, teachers, and most importantly students.   Yet, at every turn, you empower the already powerful. You actively make it harder for schools to protect our most vulnerable young people. Do you have a sense of how history will look back on your tenure in this role? The teacher of the third grade classroom where I saw students smiling and dancing on the first day of school doesn’t have to worry about her legacy; it will be in the future she is she is creating for her students.   Your legacy, well, yours will be different.


Patrick J. Kearney

Dear Secretary DeVos (Sorry About Your Yacht)

Dear Secretary DeVos,

I just read in the news that your yacht was vandalized.   Not only was it a yacht, but reports say that it was a $40 million “super yacht.” Yikes.   I really do hope that authorities find whoever untied the boat from the dock and punish them appropriately.   America should be a place where our yachts are free from this kind of thing.   Thankfully you have nine more yachts to meet your needs during this difficult period.

Reading about your yacht troubles made me curious to see what you’ve been up to lately. The news is a constant barrage of government officials doing all sorts of things to get themselves in the news; meeting with Russians, aggravating allies, implementing tariffs that will cost my state up to $624 million (, and all sorts of other stuff that makes it hard for the Department of Education to find it’s way into the news.

In doing a little bit of reading I discovered that you’ve actually been pretty busy. Just this week you have laid out plans to make it much easier for for-profit colleges to take advantage of students ( The previous administration wanted these for-profit schools to prove that they were honest to students about their ability to prepare them for future careers.   But not the DeVos Department of Education. You are actively doing all you can to make sure that these for-profit institutions have no accountability and no transparently as they prey on vulnerable students.   None of this is really surprising given that you have hired the Dean of DeVry “University” to lead these efforts. Notably, DeVry has been often called out for misleading students about job prospects and was fined $100 million in recent years over these allegations.   So, yeah, you and your crack staff have been busy making sure that there is a profit to be made on the backs of college students who are getting shafted. Those yachts don’t pay for themselves…am I right?

It is also clear that your Department of Education has been busy trying to make itself less busy. In April the Office of Civil Rights began dismissing hundreds of cases The Department of Education has been sued by civil rights organizations for dismissing complaints that it deems to be burdensome. While the Office of Civil Rights is concerned about how overloaded they are with civil rights complaints, they have found some time to dedicate considerable investigatory resources into whether schools like Yale and the University of Southern California are discriminating against men. That seems about right. While the Department of Education is making sure that Yale has enough room for dudes, advocates like Marcie Lipsitt from Michigan are having complaints about fair access for deaf and blind students dismissed. To be fair, most young deaf and blind students probably don’t have yachts to worry about, while male graduates of Yale are much more likely to have yacht problems. Only those who have experienced “super yacht” problems are likely to understand why we need to protect the civil rights of yacht owners and future yacht owners.

All of this is going on while you continue to advocate for more public dollars to spent on for-profit charter schools.   This is in the face of research that all of the advantages that are supposed to be gained by attending a private school disappear when socio-demographic characteristics are factored in ( You have called public schools a “dead end,” when nothing could be farther from the truth.   America’s public schools are the best hope for ALL students to grow, learn, and prepare for the future.   Public school teachers aren’t interested in turning a profit, public school teachers are coming to school each and every day to help ALL students learn, and public school teachers don’t make a single decision that is impacted by who may or may not have access to a yacht.

In December of 2016 I wrote this to you, “Once we introduce you to the young Bosnian kid who translates letters home to his parents, the kid living out of the family car who does homework with only a street light to illuminate his textbook, the kid who wants to be sure their school offers great music courses, a world language program, and some advanced courses, and the special education student who loves spending part of their day with their peers, we think that you will fall in love with our public schools.” It doesn’t seem like you’ve been introduced to these kids yet. You seem to continue to dedicate yourself to the yacht owners of our country.   Until you get to know the real students, parents, and staff that inhabit our public schools and those who strive to get a college education with limited resources, I’m not sure you’ll understand why those of us who are dedicated to excellent public schools are so angry.

Well, I hope your yacht gets fixed up OK.   School starts here in about a month and I am eager to meet up with my colleagues to talk about meeting the needs of the kids getting ready to walk in our doors. Our students deserve the best we can give them and I know that the colleagues I am blessed to work with are up to the challenge.


Patrick J. Kearney

Governor Ray and What it Means to be an Iowan

My parents were in the fortunate position of being able to choose where they wanted to raise a family in early 1970s. They had been raised in Nebraska and Minnesota, they had met in Colorado, and had been living in Kansas when they were given the opportunity to choose where they wanted to raise me and my brother.   After a lot of discussion and research they decided to move to Iowa.

What made Iowa appealing to a young couple in the 1970’s? The simple answer is that Governor Robert Ray made Iowa appealing to my parents. From the time I started school in Adair, Iowa through the beginning of my high school career in Ames Robert Ray was the only governor I knew. There was no distinction growing up between the role of the governor and the person Robert Ray, it was just “Governoray”.   He was synonymous with Iowa politics and what it meant to be an Iowan for many years.

So, again, why come to Iowa in the 1970s? To my parents, Iowa was unique.   They saw a pace that was easy going, they saw a commitment to public education, they saw an economy built on family farms, and they saw a state that was welcoming and deceptively progressive.   It was Robert Ray, as much as any single person, who helped to form the Iowa identity that I grew up being so proud of.

Robert Ray’s Iowa took great pride in public schools.   He radically changed how Iowa funds our schools, putting rural schools and urban schools on a more even playing field.   He recognized that people like my parents would choose to come to Iowa because the schools were strong.   He also recognized that Iowa’s schools would only flourish if teachers were treated well.   He demanded that Iowa’s teachers (and nurses and firefighters) be treated as professionals and instituted Iowa Public Employment Relations Law, which allowed employees to bargain collectively. During Governor Ray’s tenure Iowa schools were recognized as outstanding.

Robert Ray’s Iowa was also welcoming to people who needed a safe place to start a new life. During the 1970s Governor Ray cleared the way for thousands of refugees from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Viet Nam settle in Iowa.   While people everywhere understood that there was a crisis in Southeast Asia, it was Governor Ray who took action.   He knew that Iowa was a place where these family’s lives could be changed for the better.   “Don’t tell me of your concerns for human rights, show me,” Ray said. “Don’t tell me of your concerns for these people when you have a chance to save their lives, show me. Don’t tell me how Christian you are. Show me.”

Robert Ray’s Iowa was also a place where moderate political views could find a home.   Often times Governor Ray would place political rivals on state boards or advisory groups. His theory was that it was more valuable to have those who disagreed with him working on the inside to solve problems than to have them sniping from the outside.   Governor Ray’s Iowa was a state where we could elect Senator Charles Grassley and Senator Tom Harkin.   Current Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said this about Governor Ray, “Gov. Ray’s legacy lives on in the millions of people that he impacted as a tremendous statesman for Iowa and our nation. His civility, courage and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,”

As Governor Ray passed away last week at age 89 it made me ponder whether my parents would still be drawn to Iowa in 2018.   Do you look at Iowa in 2018 and see a state dedicated to strong public schools or do you see a state that has recently taken away bargaining rights for teachers, a state that is only growing K-12 funding at a rate of less than 2% in recent years, and whose leaders are eager to steer more public resources to private and charter schools.   Is Iowa still seen as a place that is welcoming to immigrants?  Well, Iowa’s most outspoken congressperson recently said, “You cannot rebuild your civilization with somebody else’s babies.” So, let’s just say that Iowa may not be seen as a refuge for those in need any more.

In one of Governor Ray’s final interviews in office he said hoped that, “People in Iowa had pride in this state and in themselves,” because of the work he did.   As you read the many messages of respect to Governor Ray upon his passing, I think it’s obvious that people were proud of our former governor.   Iowans can look back with pride on what it meant to be an Iowan during his tenure.

What public policies in the last few years make us proud to be Iowans? I’m not sure what our current legislators would point to.   More tax breaks to businesses and the top 1%? Privatizing Medicaid?   Taking Collective Bargaining from public employees?   I’m not sure any of that will encourage a young couple to want to come here and call themselves Iowans.

The election of 2018 should be about what it means to be an Iowan.