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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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Further Reflections on “Why Go to School?”

Several friends of mine who have been reading the blog commented on how comprehensive and thoughtful readers’ posts have been. It’s true. So, then, imagine a conversation about education on a broader level – regional, national – a conversation that takes its time, that involves a range of topics, that collectively gets us to think about the many purposes school can and should have in a complex society like ours.

Consider the topics raised by those who have posted comments in the last ten days.

For Karin, School is a place to form relationships and connect with others in ways that lead to a public self, “how to connect as a citizen.”

Kerri, Mira, and others also mention relationships – these with teachers who mattered in a deeply personal way: “the human face of the educational experience” and being with adults who “see the best” in young people.

For Patty, school provided a place to belong (a miniature society, perhaps?), a sense of being in something “bigger than myself.” And for one anonymous writer, school provided “escape from the reality of my life” – a point I can understand.

For Bronwyn, once it kicked in, education provided “an invitation for me to see my life and its meaning, and the lives of others and their meanings.”

For Meño “we go to encounter and deal with things/people/ideas that we would not, in the course of our humdrum everyday lives, normally or naturally encounter.”

Christopher cites intellectual engagement and pleasure, and celebrates the environment of exploration, of searching that school can provide – and this business of seeking, exploring is mentioned in other posts as well.

As do others, Rachel mentions making connections with teachers, but also discusses the joy of making connections across domains of knowledge, seeing the interrelatedness of things. And through the extracurriculum – in her case, musical theater – school become a site of creativity.

Josh values the potential for self awareness and the sharpened ability make informed decisions.

Artineh also values critical thinking and intellectual engagement, but underscores the way her education provided the prospect of economic self-sufficiency. This drive for economic stability was tied to gender inequality, financial hardship, and immigration, thus bringing to the fore in our discussion (as Meño and the anonymous writer also did) the issue of inequality.

People posed these goals of schooling in rich accounts of their own education, and teaching, and parenting. The accounts have the heft and texture of life to them: yearning, rebellion, joy, comfort, the spark of intellect, the shaping of identity. There is so little of any of this in our talk about school, so little heart and soul, but, as well, so little of the cognitive tug of intellectual engagement.

There is, of course, another dimension to our discussion, mentioned by some of those who posted comments – most recently by K-8 – and that is the fact that school often doesn’t serve young people well.

In Possible Lives, I write that a comprehensive assessment of public education (and private education, for that matter), needs to contain both criticism and images of goodness, of possibility. Otherwise judgment can devolve into dismissiveness and despair or into blithe optimism blind to incompetence and inequality. We need a vision that simultaneously sees both harsh reality and potential.

So let us return to the compelling list generated by the readers – relationship, intellectual engagement, self-reliance, encountering the new, etc. – and ask what it is about formal schooling in the U.S., public or private, that impedes these goals. Some things come quickly to mind: the way schools are structured, school politics, race and class bias, economic inequality.

Let’s think about this question. And let’s push on it. Take the issue of school structure, for example. Fine things happen in traditionally organized classrooms, and awful things in non-traditional ones. What is it exactly about school structure, or bias, or education politics, or whatever that disrupts the kinds of goals readers have listed?

I’ll get the ball rolling by suggesting that one of the awful things about race, class, or gender bias is that it usually brings with it assumptions about limited intellectual ability. Another point: A barrier to more and better interpersonal connection between teachers and students – along, of course, with work load – are professional and subject matter traditions that don’t emphasize the deep connection between cognition and human relation. I know in my case the relationship I developed with my senior high school English teacher was fundamental to my emerging interest in literature and writing. It was a kind of connection that, for me anyway, was rare in my high school.

Please feel free to post your thoughts (from your personal experience as well as from your observations as citizen, parent, or teacher) about the things that limit the realization of the kinds of goals listed above.

This rich blend of the possible and the constraints on the possible would be at the center of a reinvigorated discussion of the purpose of schooling.


Several recent contributors to this blog have fine blogs of their own, and I want to recommend them here: Deborah Meier (with Diane Ravitch) “Bridging Differences” (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences), Karin Chenoweth (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/author/kchenoweth), and Mike Klonksy (http://360.yahoo.com/michaelklonsky). If I’ve missed anyone, let me know.


  1. I’d like to give the school structure topic a whirl….. I’ll be honest with you, I’m out of my element here but feeling brave.

    My personal opinion is that the structure of the educational system needs to change in a many ways to better enable a student’s educational aspirations. Education should be about providing an avenue for students to establish the knowledge they need to achieve their specific objectives.

    Because all brains don’t think a like we don’t all learn in the same way. It does not mean that we are stupid we just learn differently. I may learn by example where others may learn by reading an instruction manual. We need to broaden the way we teach to allow for different learning styles or methods. It’s so unfair to grade a good mechanic who toils well with his/her hands, touching the mechanical parts, making things work by a paper exam. This does not make sense to me. Others love their literature but if you get them into a machine shop or lab situation they are misplaced. These are extreme examples but everyone knows half the classes we had to take in school did not bring out the best of our abilities.

    Entrance exams need to be replaced by an evaluation process that best suits the students need to be assessed, not by what the University or School’s thinks is best by forcing everyone into some universal standard. This standard is getting higher and higher every year. Students are now faced with a ridiculous average GPA of 4.0 and climbing. This is shameful. Regrettably, we’ve brought up a whole generation on these testing standards. How very un-original. One would be lead to believe that only people who can take a test deserve an education. It is so unfair to truly desire an education and then be tested right out of the school system because you could not compare to the highest standards of the other test participants in the country.

    I’m truly concerned for the students that have to try and make it in today’s Universities and not only the ones that actually get accepted. What about all the others that don’t make the cut? What happens to their aspirations, goals and dreams? I believe everyone who desires an education deserves one. It’s essential to our well being and is a crucial part of the fabric that establishes a persons self worth and sense of belonging in this ever changing society.


  2. I have a lot of things swirling around in my mind this morning and I'm trying to get this out during my work break so I apologize if this post is a little scattered.

    These days I have been thinking a lot about "education" from a pre-K level. This is in part because I've been working with local and statewide child care providers and child care advocacy groups and am immersed in issues regarding affordable, quality care for our youngest residents (and why there is so little of it.) I'm also thinking about it because my son is three years old and I'm fascinated with his own journey of discovery.

    I've been increasingly alarmed by this manic push for "school readiness" that is happening at the pre-K level. While I applaud the movement towards providing universal preschool, the motives seem less about providing a loving, caring space for children whose parents must work to survive in this economy and more about getting our babies ready for the rigors of kindergarten. THE RIGORS OF KINDERGARTEN. I have to take a breath here because this is usually where the cussing starts.

    Seriously, I have these visions of burned out, hunched over 5th graders carrying lap tops in their scoliosis-producing backpacks, stressing out about their powerpoint presentation of their book report on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Ok, it's not really a vision. It's already happening. My vision is for my own kid, and my worry that this will be him in a few years, that if we keep going the way we are going, we are going to squash all of the wonder out of our children and the very quest for knowledge in any structured form will feel like drudgery.

    I'm not going to tackle the big things here in this post--race, class, and how all of that shapes perceptions of people and impacts opportunity. There's so much to say on that front. But in this post, I think I want to bitch about fear. I'm so sick of it.

    Fear seems to drive so many stupid decisions purportedly made to protect and/or advance our country and its citizenry. The obvious example is this damned war. But really, it governs how educational policies are made too. People are so freaked out about "falling behind." Behind what? Behind whom? And did I get to agree on the metrics?

    I agree with the previous post about how ridiculously hard it is for students to meet the increasing requirements for university. And I have to say I'm glad I'm not a high schooler these days. But it starts so much younger. And it's not just in the policy arena. I take my kid to the park and I listen to parents brag about their child's preschool and how much better prepared their children are for school. And they snicker about the other children who can't read yet or can't count to 20 or whatever, all the while reflecting a culture of competitiveness that is so shameful that parents don't even think twice about making snide remarks about a human being 1/6th their age and 1/3 their size.

    I chose my son's school so carefully, as did my other friends. I watched in horror as some of my friends in Berkeley jumped through crazy hoops to get their children in the "right school." This includes not only huge fees to even apply, but parents having to go through a rigorous screening and interview process and then, if they pass, their TODDLERS also have to "audition." It's nuts. And I turn away in disgust when I read the credentials of the preschools in the Berkeley/Oakland area touting the creds of their 5 year old "graduates" who went on to prestigious private schools that prepare their students for the rigors of the ivy league. Somehow we jumped from finger paints to Harvard in a matter of a few months -- and somewhere in this span of time we're also supposed to get these kids potty trained.

    Like I said, I chose my school carefully. I'm not gonna lie -- My kid is brilliant (heh heh-- heard that one before??)But really, he is really academically-focused in a way that borders on weird. (BTW, Weird is good in my world.) But I'll be honest -- he can't dress or undress himself to save his life and is clumsier than just about any other kid I've ever met. And he's painfully shy and somewhat eccentric. My mom assures me he is a mirror image of me at that age.

    So I looked for a school that focused on relationships and that is rooted in love - and not just for my kid, but in teaching children how to respect and love each other. Wait. I don't like the way that sounded. I think kids are born knowing how to love. Good teachers show them multiple ways in which they can embody that love.

    And that is what I think is missing in our K-12 schools. And I don't mean to imply that teachers don't love their students. What I mean is that it is not a directed focus of school or of education. We are mandated to teach math, literature, science. Indirectly, in our current structure, we teach children to value grades, test scores - to value the measurement, not the knowledge, not the process of learning. We teach them to fear falling behind, we teach them shame.

    I would like to see a world where we mandate the education of kindness, of care and respect for each other. I think that should be a standard. That should be our foundation. From there, we build.

    The other day my son was cutting paper while I was making dinner. He came to me and brought me a cut out and said "Look Mama! I made Nevada!" And lo and behold, he did. Then he wrote "For Grandma, I made this. Love, Kai" on it. After having beamed and patted myself on the back in an oh-so-self- congratulatory way for having this genius son, I asked him what he learned in school that day. He said he and Peter practiced taking sweatshirts on and off. (Peter is 6 months younger than Kai.) Kai said to me "Peter says I'm too old already and I should know how to get dressed so he's helping me. He's really smart."

    So he is.

  3. For me, the problem is the outside imposition of an assessment-driven curriculum on what could be good teaching and learning environments.

    I can remember during my second year teaching high school that I brought the idea of the writing portfolio (from my days teaching Comp 1 and 2) to my 10th grade English classes.

    We spent the entire year IN the writing process and as it got closer to the end, I decided that the portfolio would serve as the largest chunk of the students' final exam grade. No more comprehensive scan-tron tests, no more last minute memorizing.

    The students and I spent nearly a month working and reworking, choosing, throwing away, and choosing pieces again. They wrote letters to the portfolio reader; they included their favorite pieces of writing; they even created resumes and biography statements. This was in 1997 and even as recently as two years ago a former student mentioned how much impact that type of work had on the remainder of her high school career and her success in college.

    Then . . . the pressure of standardsized testing hit the state. Need I say more?

    It's like what Nichols and Berliner talk about in Collateral Damage with "Campbell's Law": "that any indicator to which high stakes are attached will be subject to corruption" (p. xi). High-stakes causes many teachers (and administrators) to do what they would never normally do.

    It creates schools within schools (as was my experience once, except that I was not part of the "magnet" within the school) where resources are doled out according to students' label and where even some teachers become tracked and privileged over others because of "who" they teach.

    I know that the set-up of schools in general creates some of the issues mentioned here, but testing has increased problems ten-fold.

    As I prepare future English teachers, so much weighs on my mind. Of course, I try to teach as if the tests didn't exist at all. But, the reality is that my graduates need to learn how to function and teach in a system of testing.

    I know all this is jumbled--and probably isn't cohesive--but it is Friday and I am worn out. I just want to thank you for opening up this forum.

  4. You know Mike...this touches on something serious...especially in the condition our world lives today. There are whole generations of children today who have never known anything but war, fear, displacement, and disruption...and education is their only ticket to a sense of "normalcy". Domestically, a whole generation know school as nothing more than a place where they need to fit a "track" (no pun intended), pass the tests...etc. Something about these realities make me feel numb inside..and I don't know how exactly the two (admittedly overgeneralized) examples lead me to think of educational systems and their purpose, but they do.

    The structure of educational systems ought to ideally provide the tools for students to make it as far as they can and want to...and shouldn't stigmatize students for making the choice they make, whatever those choices might be... that's the rough summary of an ideology I've come to accept....the problem is, society, culture, perpetuate the idea that school is the springboard for financial success... "study hard, so you can get a good job"
    ...and of course, financial success is measured in terms of dollars and cents (not sense)...I never thought I'd analyze educational structure from an economists' lens...but there you have it. If there's a way to educate society on the broader purpose of education, maybe there'd be a more soul and intellect oriented movement underlying education.

    And on a random note...sometimes i look at the size of schools, especially inner city public schools...and vintage images of industralization-era assembly-line silent-era films flash through my mind...i wish schools could be VERY downsized...i'm not talking class size...i'm talking school size. imagine a school where like in some day cares all you had was one age group/academic level... and there was a whole staff of teachers there to take care of all the diverse needs of the students. Radical idea? What do you think? Maybe this already exists and I'm not aware of it...

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  6. Thank you for peeling back the layers of the onion so to speak, Mike. I've been on pretty much a similar path and think a fundamental problem in schools' organization is the centralization of power. In a soon-to-be published account of one high school one sees how district interference and control destroyed a remarkable, successful teacher- and principal-led turnaround. It is a depressing insight into American public education - a school that works until the district takes over. And, it could be any school district in the country, because the automatic and destructive use of top-down control is such a familiar and discouraging story.

    I have come to the conclusion that the key to successful reform is for citizens and educators to break our obedience to centralized control, otherwise our public schools are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. No progress can be made so long as we remain blind to the suffocating effects of centralized power.

    The article will be published on May 1 at Truthdig.com.

  7. I worked for 14 years in a special education center for students with visual impairments. We have a new principal who evidently comes from general education and thinks that children who can't see are no different from children who can. Policies that do not work with children anywhere are being practiced with these children. Standards are posted high on the wall and bulletin boards are lovely and colorful works of art with alphabet pages from coloring books posted, nicely colored in within the lines. Teachers wear nice clothes and do not allow the children to touch them. I went into these classrooms and wondered who all these standards were for. The kids couldn't see them and most of them had no hope of ever meeting them either. High stakes where the bets are against the kids. Kids who cannot see do not color between the lines unless someone holds the crayon between their fingers and "motors" them. The students can't see what they are doing either, not to mention that touch is essential to them, so they they need to hold sand paper and velvet and run their fingers through beans and rice. The principal did not like messiness,so the rooms are spotless, but nothing is available for the kids to hear but the teacher's voice, touch, or smell because loud music is out and evidently the curriculum cannot be adpated to accommodate smelly stuff. I love special education for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that teachers work with the children who are actually there and their actual needs. Evidently, in L A now policies that don't work for anyone are being implemented in cases where they are out and out ludicrous. This is actually hopeful. Mary Jimenez

  8. The pressing need to meet, or exceed, a computed goal on standardized tests can significantly impede a teacher's and a school's ability to assist students where and how they need it most. Administrators will insist that the data has pointed to student needs and that therefore instruction is being guided toward learning deficits. Back in the classroom, the fallacy of this reasoning is evident. Rarely do the accumulation of points on a school's overall test scores, or even within a subgroup, match up very meaningfully with what students need to know and need to be able to do. And even more rarely does test preparation align with the inquiry process and relevance teachers need to develop in their classrooms. Additionally, these goals are often set up for subgroups, and teachers are required to redesign instruction in order to drive up the scores for a lower performing group (in our school this was once English-dominate Latino males, a subgroup that needed connection, relevance, and to have their intellectual curiosity re-tapped but not to practice test taking on vocabulary lessons). Teachers were asked to forgoe their more inspirational, and quite likely more useful, lessons in order to focus on a limited number of testing concerns for a limited number of test takers. Unlike some of my coworkers, I do feel there is a place for some standardized testing. But when achieving scores at the site and district level subplant specific student needs in the classroom, something is wrong.

  9. 1。那混合物是更缓慢的 ... 但是 Lexus 的即将到来混合版本 ' 将是比气体气体更快的唯一的版本如好地有多马力。不要自夸速度,但是我被吸引轮流开送行为 90,是警察给我一次休息。
    ... 只是通过在城市乘公交车往返我储蓄过来 $ 5000/yr 与我的以前的汽车,吉普车切诺基相比。超过 5 年,会是 $ 更不用说会进一步增强我的储蓄的最近的比率远足的 20K。这样除非你是在你的父母的地产上吸的一个浪费的儿子,你的声明是一束公牛。

  10. 3. 45 (90 r/t)
    45mpg 天是 2 我的车上> 8 加>>比。那每天是 6 >仑的一笔>蓄, 120 月, 1440 每年者 5040 (根 3.5 元/) ... 加上它发表 1/10th CO2。多愚蠢是它不要骑一个,去算进今天和年龄。
    4.缺少了解 ... 是真的,实际上我个人这样那样喜欢它我可能享受所有鼓励;税,合伙用车,免费停车米, prius 业主之间的秘密的信号,等等;这样自私地说那我真地在那里在享受在所有气体汽车业主上的所有权那没有一个想法多少我这辆汽车有的嬉戏。我 junked 我的 SL,郊区对我的 Prius ... 你应该也。

  11. School years have a great impact on everyone’s life and the years spent in this learning institution are very crucial. So, it’s important that here a student does not just gain knowledge but does use it also.