About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Risk and Everyday Heroes

In the terrible and constant flow of images related to the coronavirus pandemic, the pictures of grocery clerks at their stations have been catching my attention. The images are so familiar and benign: the clerk tapping keys on the register, or, hand extended, passing packaged meat or a box of soap over the scanner, or leaning over to help a customer insert a credit card. How many times a day is this commonplace human-commercial drama repeated?
But these are not commonplace times, for while countless businesses are shuttered and we are told to keep our distance from each other, and in some cities and states to stay at home, grocery clerks are doing their job face-to-face with a stream of their fellow human beings. Depending on the store, the clerks have as protection gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, marked boundaries, and, as I write this, the promise in one grocery chain of a plexiglass barrier. But in most cases, these protections are inadequate. Still the clerks are at their stations. And, it seems, the nation sees them. And acknowledges the risk they take. And thanks them. 
In terms of occupational rankings, grocery clerk is relatively low in status. One woman in a long radio interview stated flatly that she’s aware being a grocery clerk is considered a “low-status job,” so walking to work she never wore her apron but carried it folded over her arm, in a manner, I assume, that hid the company logo from view. Now, she says, she puts the apron on when she leaves her house. She appreciates the gratitude she receives for the work she does. 
But she and all the other grocery clerks I’ve heard interviewed also express ambivalence, worry, and anger. “We’re lucky to have work,” one clerk told a friend of mine, but as her customers’ isolation and economic distress intensifies, she continued, “people are getting grumpier.” And day by day she worries about exposure to the virus. “I’m just trying to keep my spirits up.” “It’s the same old job,” another clerk says, “but now it’s scary.” Efforts of clerks and their unions to gain more protections and compensation are increasing, with varying degrees of success. Still, grocery clerks show up. One woman poignantly expressed what most must feel in some way: The work is risky, but she has a family to support, so what can she do? An awful dilemma. 
We rightly praise first responders and front-line health-care workers during a crisis. They save lives and put their own lives at risk —a number of them are testing positive for the coronavirus. But as NPR reporter Alina Selyukh keenly observes in a recent profile of a grocery clerk, “in times of crisis, some of the lowest paid jobs become essential.” Though these jobs are not adequately protected or rewarded, they do become visible. And thus, perhaps, we, for a time at least, value the everyday work of the world. 
Let me close by reprinting a related reflection I wrote about my mother, a career waitress, for the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Mind at Work. It is a tribute to her and to all the other workers who, as the poet Marge Piercy puts it, “do what has to be done, again and again.” 

***

When my mother Rosie came home after a long day waiting tables, she would spread out on the bed an old white kitchen towel turned gray from years of coins and dump her tips on it. As she told my father and me about her day—a fight with the cook, a regular’s troubles at home—she would count and separate the coins. I had a weird fascination with that towel. Old, dirty, but the grime had a silver cast to it, the color of money. “If it wasn’t for the tips,” she told me many years later, “we wouldn’t have made it.” There was a front and back counter in the restaurant, and she described working with her sidekick, Ann, another career waitress, how they’d listen—when they could slow down enough—“listen real hard” for the sound of the tip and know if it was a dime, a quarter, a half-dollar, “or no sound at all…you either got stiffed, or they left a dollar.” I don’t remember many dollars on the bed.
I take some coins out of my pocket, close my eyes, and give each a short toss onto the table. She was right; they have distinct sounds, a tink, a thunk. The sound of groceries, of rent, of school supplies, of gas for the car. 
There is a direct line between those tips and me being able to sit here and write about my mother’s work, and my uncle’s, and all the other people who make so much possible through their labor. There are about two million waitresses in the United States. Through a combination of physical and social skill and the ability to think on their feet, they support families and put kids through school, or pay for their own school, or help aging parents. They make restaurants function at the point of service. They contribute to the social fabric of the neighborhoods where they work.
There are roughly two million home health care workers in our country, tending to those who are too sick to care for themselves. There are somewhere around one and a half million plumbers, carpenters, and electricians, daily clearing the flow of water, completing a circuit, building and repairing our shelter. The list continues, outward and across the country: ranch hands and farm workers, long-haul truckers and local drivers, firefighters and miners and welders, the untold numbers of people who work in factories, canneries, and meat-processing plants.
Collectively, these men and women form a massive web of skill that makes our country function, that maintains and comforts and, at times, rescues us. They are so present, their mental and manual abilities so woven into our daily lives that their skills are taken for granted, at times slip out of sight. 

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Thursday, February 27, 2020

Teachers’ Knowledge, Teachers’ Strikes, and Slaying Goliath

Over the past eight or nine months, I have been writing in this blog about perception and knowledge. How we gain knowledge, how background and social location affect that knowledge, whose knowledge counts, how the context or setting from which we perceive and know matters. (This from an earlier blog: “What you see depends on where you sit, and for how long.”) My fixation on this cluster of topics come into play again as I was reading Diane Ravitch’s timely new book, Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and The Fight to Save America’s Public Schools. As you can tell from the title, the book is an account of the growing counterforce against the decades-long assault on the nation’s public schools, presented by Ravitch in terms of the gripping biblical battle between the giant Goliath and the underdog welterweight David.
Goliath is a composite figure, his bone and sinew built of many characters and organizations, from conservative politicians like Jeb Bush, to libertarian think tanks and plutocrats like the Koch brothers, to tech entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation. These people and organizations are not monolithic in ideology or tactics. Take, for example, the issue of vouchers. Some voucher proponents are small-government conservatives or libertarians, while others are motivated by religious ideology, wanting to redirect education funding to parochial schools, and yet others see vouchers as a means to empower low-income parents, often People of Color, unhappy with their neighborhood schools—Howard Fuller in Milwaukee comes to mind. Some of these actors are local, though not infrequently they gain big-dollar support from wealthy donors who oppose public schools and/or teachers’ unions.
Maybe the many-headed Hydra from Greek mythology is a better figure to represent the assault of multiple critics and opponents of public schools. Part of what has made this assault so daunting over the years has been its unrelenting, multi-pronged intensity. (“Our national discussion about public schools,” I wrote in Possible Lives, “is despairing and dismissive”—and that was in 1995!) When one of the snake-like heads of the Hydra was cut off, two would grow in its place.
What all the critics share, in Ravitch’s analysis, is a desire to significantly alter or, in some cases, dismantle public education—Ravitch uses a term popularized in management literature, “disrupt.” All these people and organizations are “The Disrupters.” The Goliath personification fits in that there is huge money behind many Disrupter initiatives, and along with the money comes a sophisticated public relations apparatus—funding and a control of the narrative. And some of these initiatives got instantiated into national education policy: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core Standards, charter schools. Money, narrative, the force of policy… that is power, indeed. Goliath.
David, too, is a composite figure that does include some actors with considerable political and financial power like teachers’ unions or moral authority, such as the NAACP. But David is also made of bloggers and local activists (often K-12 teachers or college professors and parents) and rank-and-file teachers, particularly those involved in the recent wave of consequential teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and more.
The story told in Slaying Goliath is primarily a story of the clash between the long-dominant Goliath and the emergent and energized David, a story of power and politics, of grass-roots activism, of organizing and mobilizing— and a story of recapturing a narrative. I am also taken by a parallel story that runs through the book, one that is certainly present in Ravitch’s telling, but that, given my current fixation, I’d like to highlight. It is a story about knowledge and power—knowledge about schools and children and the art and science of teaching.
As I wrote earlier, there are multiple actors and multiple motives involved in the so-called school reforms of the last few decades, but one dominant characteristic a number of them share is a reliance on ideas and language drawn from business schools, economics, and the high-tech sector: the use of standardized tests to measure learning; the application of those tests to assess teacher effectiveness through “value-added” methodology; the creation of curriculum standards with the intention of systematizing instruction as well as the development of scripts and routinized behavioral techniques to direct and improve teaching; computer-based instruction to “personalize” learning. This technocratic orientation also encourages a certain kind of systems-level thinking: what are the mechanisms, the “levers” that will yield broad systemic change? The structural or technological magic bullet.
There is value in asking the kinds of questions the critics ask— How do we know students are learning? Can we improve teacher quality? —and certainly value in taking a broad, systems-level perspective on schooling. The problem is that the solutions the technocratic orientation yield tend toward the mechanistic and simplified. As I argued in Why School?, the faith in technology can lead to a belief that complex human problems can be framed as engineering problems, their social and political messiness factored away. Hand-in-glove is an epistemological insularity, a lack of knowledge about social and cultural conditions—or worse, a willful discounting of those conditions as irrelevant. It is telling how rarely one hears any references to history or culture in the technologists’ discourse.  Also minimized is the value of on-the-ground, craft knowledge; experience in classrooms is not as valuable as abstract knowledge of organizational dynamics and technological principles and processes. A professor of management tells a class of aspiring principals that the more they know about the particulars of instruction, the less effective they’ll be, for that nitty-gritty knowledge will blur their perception of the problem and the application of universal principles of management —as fitting for a hospital or a manufacturing plant as a school.
To be sure, not all the characters in the Goliath camp share this narrow view and do value the knowledge gained from classroom practice. But many high-profile players regard education with technocratic disdain, do not see teaching or running a school as being that hard. Classroom knowledge is downplayed, and the field of education in general is bemoaned as bereft of talent. A 2012 article in the business magazine Forbes listed fifteen major “education disruptors,” people who the magazine’s editors selected as revolutionizing “the largest, most dysfunctional field of all.” The fifteen were an impressive lot: computer scientists and tech entrepreneurs, a college president, several charter school and online education leaders. But none of them, as best as I could determine, had any notable experience teaching in K-12 schools. Such experience didn't seem to matter to the Forbes editors as they compiled their list of luminaries who will save education by disrupting it.
While there are a number of actors and motives at play in what Ravitch calls The Resistance, it is safe to say that many of the figures are teachers and parents who are close to conditions on the ground, who know the young people in their communities, know their schools and the textured daily life of classrooms, know teaching from the inside, live it, and understand a great deal about the complex social and cognitive dynamics of learning. Some among The Resistance take a broad, systems-level view of schooling as well —they couldn't be political actors without it— but their perspective is more social and cultural and is infused with their day-to-day knowledge of how schools work.
Political action brings teachers’ unions to the fore. Unions exist to advocate for bread and butter issues, though some of them in some labor actions also advocate for other social causes. I think that unions also embody ways of seeing the world that emerge from the work the union represents. They are political and economic organizations but, as well, epistemological entities. They project into the public sphere the work experience of firefighters, nurses, service employees, teachers and argue from that experience for wages, benefits, and protections and, it seems to me, argue for the legitimacy and value of their members’ knowledge, what they know how to do and the contribution that know-how makes to society.
After decades of Goliath’s public relations success in stomping all over the public schools and those who work them (remember that Forbes tagline “the largest, most dysfunctional field of all”), David and his slingshot crew were able to change the story, reach the public with what they knew, with a different way of seeing the everyday life in our schools: Kids without nurses or librarians; overcrowded classrooms; testing gone off the rails; teachers living paycheck to paycheck, if they could make it that far; parents giving first-person testimony about what their neighborhood school means to them. Ravitch is correct in characterizing this shift in perception as remarkable. The story she tells is a compelling political drama, and an account of the formation of social policy, and a master class for activists. It is also an epic tale about knowledge, whose knowledge counts, and what can happen when a kind of knowledge that has long been distorted and discounted gains authority and power. That is quite a story to tell.

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